Gregor Townsend will announce a small squad of approximately 32 players tomorrow, ahead of the autumn Tests following on from the 41-strong squad that met at St Andrews in the middle of August.
That extended squad boasted six uncapped players, but you have to hope that at least two of them drop discreetly out of the limelight. Darcy Graham and Matt Fagerson were both included in the senior Scotland squad just months after graduating from the national 20s.
The younger Fagerson is just 19 and while he has recently stepped up from an apprentice to a full professional contract he has made just one start for Glasgow on Dave Rennie’s watch, although that may well change in November. That is one more than his 20s colleague Graham, who has been sidelined with a knee injury so may have missed out anyway.
While Gregor Townsend’s inclusion of two of Scotland’s most promising young players sent a signal that he was minded to promote youth, now might not be the time. There are just 19 scheduled international fixtures before RWC’19 (plus a couple of warm-up matches) so there is precious little time to get a newbie up and running from scratch. Better to ask them to impress in club colours before offering any premature promotions.
The Scotland coach has at least been spared one huge decision by the unfortunate injury to Greig Laidlaw’s ankle which will sideline him for the November Tests although he could be back for the Six Nations.
His replacement as scrum-half should be Ali Price, who may have got the shirt in any event, and John Barclay could take over the captaincy after making a reasonable fist of things last season, excepting that Twickenham fiasco, after Laidlaw was injured in Paris. However, Townsend didn’t exactly bend over backwards to keep Barclay at Glasgow. The new coach arrived in 2012, one year later Barclay was allowed to sign for the Scarlets.
There aren’t a huge number of alternatives, especially if they want a Scottish skipper who, as well as ticking all the other boxes, sounds the part into the bargain. Ross Ford has done it in the past and with Fraser Brown injured he should add to his 110 caps, especially given Scotland’s front row woes.
One year ago Scotland looked in good shape for tight-head props but after a long lay-off WP Nel has slipped from Lions’ candidate to club cannon fodder. Did the neck injury affect him long term or is something else ailing the South African? One pundit noted that the Edinburgh scrum improved when he was replaced by Simon Berghan so, whatever the reason, Nel is a long way off the heights he hit during RWC’15.
His young rival Zander Fagerson is also struggling, hanging on with his finger nails rather than dropping anchor in the set scrums, which is only what you’d expect from a 21-year-old. The Exeter pack are a thumping big unit but less intimidating than some of the international front rows Fagerson has already faced. The youngster was forced to concede ground and penalties last weekend.
One potential “bolter” at tighthead is Jon Welsh, who is a regular starter for Newcastle Falcons whom he has helped to fourth place in the table with four wins from six starts, nosebleed territory for the perennial bottom fishers.
Welsh won the last of his 11 caps in that agonising World Cup quarter-final defeat, he was the man who conceded the wrongly-given penalty at the death and he is in danger of being known more for that than for his combative personality on the pitch.
The continued absence of Ally Dickinson from the rugby field might have been disastrous but for Allan Dell’s recent recovery and while Jamie Bhatti lacks the Edinburgh’s man’s dynamism around the field he is probably the better technical prop. Meanwhile Rory Sutherland had his first outing in many months for Hawick yesterday.
If Townsend were picking his second row on form alone then Ben Toolis and Scott Cummings would make a young partnership in the boilerhouse but they almost certainly won’t.
Richie Gray is injured and while Jonny Gray is back playing after his own problems he doesn’t look anywhere near his best form.
After missing out on the Lions’ tour Gray (junior) spent many long weeks in the gym trying to lower his weight and increase his strength, all too aware that rugby has become a game of power while Gray’s strengths lie in endurance.
Gray has an ultra-reliable diesel engine which is perfect for Le Mans when he is effectively competing in world rallycross.
In contrast, Cummings spent much of his youth rugby playing at No.8 and he retains that athleticism of a breakaway while Toolis has always been mobile around the park. A Scotland side without a Gray in the starting XV may appear unlikely but it isn’t entirely far-fetched.
The third row of the scrum poses the same problems that have beset Scottish rugby for over a decade, the lack of a big ball-carrying six/eight. The explosive David Denton fills that description but he has been plagued with injuries and has had precious little game time over the last 18 odd months as a result.
This may change but right now Denton is seen as a 50 minute, rather than an 80 minute player, which has repercussions for the balance of the back row because the other two need to go the distance.
Hamish Watson looks the best seven around, especially with rival John Hardie suspended, and if Barclay recovers from his head knock he looks in pole position for the No.6 shirt although Townsend could opt for a Wilson/Denton partnership at six/eight if he wants to field more muscle.
The half-backs pick themselves with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne the favourite to replace Laidlaw. Ruaridh Jackson should hang around because he covers ten/15 and does so better than Greg Tonks while Blair Kinghorn has made some high-profile gaffes that won’t help his cause.
Townsend must construct a midfield without the cornerstone that is Alex Dunbar. Peter Horne could play second five, as he does for Glasgow, but it might be better to shoe-horn Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones into the same team even though both men prefer wearing 13. Townsend could even look to the past and play them left centre/right centre which at least has the merit of showing something different to the opposition defence and both men have enough experience to make it stick.
Out wide the entire squad will be boosted by Stuart Hogg’s return to action in yesterday’s European match against Leinster. With Sean Maitland injured and likely to miss the opening match of the November Tests, at the very least, Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser will presumably fill two wing spaces presuming Hogg stays fit.
But after five rounds of Aviva action the English Premiership had a Scot leading the try-scoring tables and it was none of the above.
Sale Sharks’ Byron McGuigan, a Scotland sevens player in the past, scored six tries in five outings including a hat-trick of touchdowns against Gloucester. And that doesn’t include the pre-season try he scored against Edinburgh.
He spent time with Exeter Chiefs and barely got a look-in, but he has formed a potent double act at the Sharks alongside England’s Denny Solomona and Sale currently boast two of the best finishers in the business. It seems unlikely to make the cut but if Townsend was picking purely on current form, McGuigan would have to be in the mix.