Gregor Townsend shuffled his pack of playing cards and came up with six uncapped players for Scotland’s summer tour to Canada, USA and Argentina.
They will fill the gaps created by seven high-profile players who are rested ahead of what is sure to be an arduous 2019 with the World Cup kicking off in Japan in September. In addition to the seven rested there are four other regulars who will miss out due to injuries or elective surgery: John Hardie, Hamish Watson, Huw Jones and WP Nel whose knee is the latest body part to buckle.
According to the national coach several of those who were stood down fought hard to get on to the summer tour.
“Yes, quite a number of them,” Townsend replied when asked if some players had tried to change his mind. “Sometimes you have to look at the long-term benefits for players. They probably don’t see that when they see three Tests in three great countries, two of them in the northern hemisphere which you don’t get often on summer tours.
“For some an extra few weeks of pre-season and three fewer games should give them help for a massive season (ahead).”
In the absence of both John Barclay and Greig Laidlaw, the men who have captained Scotland in the last two seasons, that honour falls to Stuart McInally who has enjoyed a stand-out season in his adopted position of hooker. The Edinburgh man has become Scotland’s number one No 2 and he captains his club.
“The last 12 months he’s made a huge breakthrough,” said Townsend, praising the work done by Edinburgh’s coaching staff before adding: “So much of it is down to Stuart, he’s an intelligent man and an intelligent player and he knows what he has to do. He leads by example when not captain, the way he gets his detail right, his energy and also his defence. He’s been an outstanding tackler this year. From that he’s captained Edinburgh really well, he’s thrived with the captaincy.
“The bonus for us not taking the captains from the last couple of years is we’re getting to see someone else that we believe can perform that role well.”
There are six new faces in this Scotland squad but just one that had the journalists rushing to Google. Harlequins’ James Lang has played most of his rugby this season as back up ten to the precocious teenage talent that is Marcus Smith. He has had five league starts for Quins this season and made another five appearances off the bench for a grand total of nine points. He qualifies thanks to a Scottish grandfather.
“I spoke to him during the Six Nations to say we were keeping an eye on him and that if he kept up his form he could be in the mix for summer as a 12, which is primarily what we are looking at. He has that ball-carrying ability and his biggest strength is his ability to break tackles. But his ability to play ten means we have a second receiver, a second kicker. That’s something we want to explore.”
Lang may not be a ten but it remains a problem position for Scotland if Finn Russell is injured or off key, and the back three is becoming almost as big a headache. Blair Kinghorn did a stand-in job against Ireland in the Six Nations but the very fact that Townsend threw a full-back on to the wing says all you need to know about his options out wide.
Two players who endured a miserable Six Nations opener in Cardiff get a chance to make amends. Sale’s Byron McGuigan was the toast of the town after scoring a brace on his first start against Australia last November but he struggled against Wales in the Six Nations and outside centre Chris Harris fared no better.
The other man making a comeback after time in the shadows is Leicester flanker Luke Hamilton who did show up well in his one Test to date, a 23- minute cameo against the All Blacks last autumn.
But the main boost to Townsend was the return to action of Saracens’ utility back Duncan Taylor who has not played for Scotland since that embarrassing loss to Fiji almost exactly one year ago.
Taylor has struggled with a series of injuries, including several concussions, which some worried might end his career but the classy centre is back playing again and, with Saracens still in the Aviva playoffs, the coach was crossing his fingers Taylor makes the plane.
The return of Allan Dell adds to the options at loosehead and the South African is backed up by Jamie Bhatti with Gordon Reid, a starter in the Six Nations, surplus to requirements.