S ome of his predecessors must be looking at Gregor Townsend with more than a touch of envy. They sometimes struggled to field a XV without at least a couple of players who, whatever their merits , weren’t quite of genuine international class. Now, as we approach the November Tests, Townsend will be without Stuart Hogg, Duncan Taylor, John Barclay, Richie Gray, Mark Bennett, Zander Fagerson and Tim Swinson, all established stars, for the whole month, and Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell, Sean Maitland and David Denton for the first match against Wales. Yet nobody doubts that there is now sufficient strength in depth to enable him to put out a team capable of winning these matches.
We may still have only two professional clubs, but they are both now strong enough to compete on level terms with any other clubs in the European Champions Cup. They may each this month have won one, lost one, but both defeats, against very strong sides, were close and both matches might easily have gone the other way. This wasn’t the case five or six years ago. Moreover, while Scotland is not, like England and Ireland, in a strong enough position to restrict international selection to home-based players, this relaxed attitude, which has led to players moving to English or French clubs without ending, or interrupting, their international career, has at least meant that there are new opportunities at Glasgow and Edinburgh for their replacements. So Adam Hastings, given the chance of moving out of Finn Russell’s shadow, has come on much faster this autumn than would have been likely if Finn had remained at Scotstoun.
There are other injuries of course – there always are. Magnus Bradbury, who has been in terrific form for Edinburgh, is one. But Townsend is not short of back-row forwards, with the New Zealand – born Blade Thomson now added to the mix, and looking formidably good from what one has seen of him.
One would guess it’s unlikely that anyone will play in all four matches, and certainly not for the full 80 minutes, though, having written that, one wouldn’t really be surprised to find Jonny Gray playing 320 minutes of international rugby in November. Townsend is, however, likely to rotate his players, partly because there is an element of the glorified Trial for the Six Nations in these autumn Tests. That said, one should remember that it is now unusual for front-row forwards to play much more than half a match or starting scrum-halves to be on the field after the hour mark. Gregor will surely be eager to get the Exeter lock, Sam Skinner, on the pitch, given that he is dual-qualified, having played first for Scotland early age-group sides, then for England under-20.
One assumes that Blair Kinghorn will be given the opportunity to establish himself as Stuart Hogg’s deputy, though it would be no great surprise to see Sean Maitland or Tommy Seymour at 15 in at least one match.
Behind the scrum the two most tantalising selections are at 12 and 9. One assumes that Huw Jones is now our established 13 (though unlikely to play all four games), but the 12 position seems to be wide open with Alex Dunbar, Sam Johnson, Peter Horne and Matt Scott in contention. What one can say is one would have confidence in all of them, not a statement that could always have been made about our centre three-quarters. Of course Peter Horne also covers the stand-off position, while the other three are all equally adept at 13.
Clermont Auvergne won’t, one assumes, release Greig Laidlaw for the Welsh match, while the fact that Richard Cockerill was able to name Henry Pyrgos as Edinburgh’s captain against Zebre last night might indicate that the two 9s at Cardiff will be Ali Price and George Horne – or at least that’s what it looked like until one saw that young Horne was starting for Glasgow against Munster in Limerick this evening. So one supposes that Ali Price will start against Wales, with either Pyrgos or Horne on the bench. Actually, any other considerations aside, I would pick Price to start against Wales. This is not only because he has had two very good matches against Saracens and Cardiff Blues, but because his last visit to the Principality Stadium was some way short of being a happy one. So I would throw him in again at the deep end, giving him the chance to wipe out that memory. Henry Pyrgos will, however, surely feature in the course of the month; he played outstandingly well against Toulon last week, his control and generalship being exceptional.
Young Matt Fagerson is another with an unhappy experience – in his case against the USA on the summer tour – to put behind him. He too had a cracking game last weekend, as indeed he had against Saracens the previous week. So I hope he will start at 8 next, though his selection, like George Horne’s, for the match in Limerick may make this unlikely.