Gregor Townsend has admitted he was both surprised and disappointed when lock Richie Gray turned down a second invitation to train with Scotland ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Speaking in Georgia ahead of Scotland’s match on Saturday, the national coach revealed that Gray could have been involved in the original 44-man group named in May but after two years of injury and with his wife expecting their first child any day, he did not feel able to commit at that time.
When Townsend phoned Gray again after Sam Skinner, the Exeter lock, went down with an injury last weekend, he expected Gray to change his mind, only to be rebuffed again.
“That [the original decision in May] was understandable with the season he had and the commitment that players in France have to give – more understandable, let’s say” Townsend said.
“When I chatted to him after Sam’s injury, I did get the feeling this would be different because we’d done the six weeks of training, he’d not had to be over in Portugal and Scotland and all the other places away from his new family. He also felt better physically than he was at the end of the season.
“After reflection, when he got back to me, his decision was the same. It is a big commitment and we need people who are 100 per cent committed to the training, to playing well, to going to Japan if selected and being out there for a number of weeks.
“It is disappointing for us, disappointing for his brother [fellow lock forward Jonny Gray] I’d imagine, but that’s his decision and we need to move on from it.”
Townsend, did however, make it clear that the door has not closed on Gray playing again at some stage in the future, though he would have to force his way past the players who are establishing themselves now.
“We’ll see [about the future]. I would hope so. If he’s playing really well, and merits getting called up into our squad whether it’s Six Nations or summer tour next year, he’d be in consideration,” Townsend added.
In reality, there is no guarantee Gray would have had much of a chance to play his way into the World Cup squad. Tim Swinson, who came in after Gray rejected the call, was not named in the 23 being sent out to make history as Scotland become the first traditional rugby power to play in Georgia.
He travelled to Tbilisi but unless one of the locks is ruled out after the captain’s run today, he will not play and, with the Scotland World Cup squad being announced in Linlithgow on Tuesday, there will be no further chances for anybody to force their way in.
The two players under most pressure in that respect are Sam Johnson and Rory Hutchison, who will form yet another new midfield combination.
For Johnson, a stand-out in the Six Nations, it is a chance to show he is over the ankle injury be picked up in training; for Hutchison, for whom it will be his first start after two runs from the bench, it is a chance to complete his meteoric rise from struggling to make his club team a year ago to Test player.
“Sam has never played with Rory, Rory has never started with Finn,” Townsend pointed out. “It’s a midfield that can all step up and play first receiver, but at the weekend it might have to be a midfield that has to front up defensively and carry ball, be an extra forward.”
With the team being announced on Tuesday, Townsend and his fellow coaches plan to get together soon after this game to nail down the final positions, and he admits it could be a challenging task.