Gregor Townsend is resigned to losing two Scottish-qualified players to England when his counterpart Eddie Jones confirms his Six Nations squad tomorrow.
Speaking yesterday after naming his own 40-man group for the tournament, which opens with the game against Wales in Cardiff a week on Saturday, Townsend said that he won’t consider Gloucester scrum-half Ben Vellacott or Newcastle flanker Gary Graham, both former Scotland Under-20 players, with the expectation that they will join up with the England squad.
Stirling-born Graham, the 25-year-old son of former Scotland prop George, had already been included in an England training camp at the turn of the year but there was hope that 22-year-old Vellacott, whose mother is from Peterhead, might opt for Scotland.
Townsend appeared to have given up hope yesterday, though, and said: “Ben is someone we have talked to a lot over the last couple of seasons. I almost signed him at Glasgow. He came up for a couple of days but decided to stay at Gloucester.
“We have been in regular communication with him but again we will wait and see what squad England pick in the next couple of days but it looks likely he will be involved with them in the Six Nations.”
It may well have been a late call, with a clue being that yesterday’s media release listed the squad in alphabetical order, with the exception being scrum-half Nathan Fowles, who was the last back listed, perhaps where someone with a surname beginning with a V might have been?
Fowles is one of four uncapped players in the squad, along with young tighthead props Murray McCallum and D’Arcy Rae and Edinburgh full-back Blair Kinghorn.
Greig Laidlaw returns after missing nine of Scotland’s 11 Tests last year through injury and British and Irish Lions commitments, but flanker John Barclay remains as captain.
There are recalls for forwards Dave Denton, Scott Lawson, Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh after long absences from the international scene but no place for Harlequins wing Tim Visser, who was also left out of the autumn Test series.
Scotland are in no position to carp too much about losing Vellacott and Graham to England, having assimilated a vast number of foreign-born and raised players down the years. It is rather jolting, however, to have one of the big nations casting their rod in the Scottish pond.
The RFU’s English Qualified Player system sees clubs handsomely rewarded for fielding a matchday squad that is 70 per cent eligible for England, which is an obvious lure for those with dual options.
“It is unusual that a country like England, with all its resources and players, that players who have played age grade for Scotland are going into the England squad,” said Townsend. “But it is now the reality and probably in some ways can be seen as a positive that our players are attracting interest outside of Scotland.
“It is the players’ decisions. You can understand that if you are playing in England, you are in their system, whether that is through your club or the EQP, the pressures that are on each club, that you are maybe going to be watched more by the England coaches…
“I don’t like using the term ‘our players’, they are not ‘our players’, they played under-20s for us but they are dual qualified like a number of players are in the game.
“We are part of the United Kingdom as well as being Scotland/England so a lot are going to have parentage or will have moved down south at some stage so that they can play for other countries.”
Townsend said he wasn’t keen on resurrecting the A team as a vehicle for “capturing” players and tying them to Scotland.
“The only way you would look at adding a Scotland A [team] would be to help your preparations,” he said. “If you were doing it for cynical reasons, first I don’t think it is right, and the players would see through it.”