Scotland's World Cup prep begins: straight fight to replace Stuart Hogg, finding right blend in four big warm-up matches

How do you replace your most experienced player, former captain and all-time top try-scorer?

That’s the conundrum facing Gregor Townsend this week as he prepares to begin the post-Stuart Hogg era and kick-start Scotland’s Rugby World Cup preparations. The coach will on Wednesday name his team to face Italy at Murrayfield this Saturday, the first of four warm-up matches they will play before the tournament begins in France in September. Hogg has been a fixture in the No 15 jersey since the 2012 Six Nations. He has played in each of the last two World Cups and, along with Finn Russell, been a poster boy for Scottish rugby for a decade. His announcement earlier this month that he was retiring with immediate effect and would not, after all, go to the World Cup robs Scotland of one of its great sporting heroes but also opens the door for pretenders to the Hogg throne, and it looks to be a straight fight between Ollie Smith and Blair Kinghorn.

Townsend got a preview of post-Hogg life in the final match of this year’s Six Nations when the Hawick man was ruled out by injury. Then, as now, Italy provided the opposition and the game had added significance for being only the second time in 11 years that Scotland had started a match without either Hogg or Russell, who was also injured. Smith was selected at full-back against the Italians in March, winning just his third cap and his first in the Championship. And Blair Kinghorn was at 10, although he did drop back to 15 in the final stages after Ben Healy replaced Smith in the 68th minute for his Scotland debut. Kinghorn scored a hat-trick that afternoon, including a lung-busting, length-of-the-pitch wonder try in the final seconds as the home side defended desperately on their own line (interestingly, the Edinburgh man had returned to first receiver for the try-scoring play). The late, late score – converted by Kinghorn – put a gloss on the result, allowing Scotland to end their campaign with a 26-14 win and equal their highest finish – third – of the Six Nations era.

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Kinghorn’s well documented transition from back-three player to stand-off has been two years in the making but the reality is that the rangy Edinburgh back is now needed at full-back. His pace, power and eye for a try would mark him out as Hogg’s natural successor but Smith enjoyed a fine season with Glasgow Warriors, even if he doesn't quite have the try threat of Kinghorn. Given Finn Russell’s late end to the French domestic season with Racing, Townsend may be tempted to give his first choice stand-off this weekend off and stick with Kinghorn at 10 and Smith at 15 against Italy. What is certain is that both men will have a run-out at full-back over the course of the summer programme which continues with home and away matches against France on August 5 and 12 and finished against Georgia at Murrayfield on August 26.

Blair Kinghorn during a Scotland training session at the Hive Stadium, in Edinburgh. He is a contender to fill the No 15 jersey vacated by Stuart Hogg.  (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Blair Kinghorn during a Scotland training session at the Hive Stadium, in Edinburgh. He is a contender to fill the No 15 jersey vacated by Stuart Hogg.  (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Blair Kinghorn during a Scotland training session at the Hive Stadium, in Edinburgh. He is a contender to fill the No 15 jersey vacated by Stuart Hogg. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

These four games offer Townsend a chance to tinker and fine-tune before the horrendously tough World Cup campaign kicks off for Scotland with a match against holders South Africa in Marseille on September 10. Expect to see first caps for Stafford McDowall and Cameron Henderson, and also perhaps Ruaridh McConnochie, over the next few weeks as the coach gives opportunities to those who have impressed for their clubs. McDowall was a key player in Glasgow’s run to the URC play-offs and Challenge Cup final but faces a tough task to dislodge Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Cam Redpath and Chris Harris from the centre berths when Townsend trims his final squad to 33. Henderson, the Leicester Tigers lock, could benefit from Jonny Gray’s injury-enforced absence if he can impress over the next few weeks. McConnochie’s inclusion would make for a remarkable story. The Bath back played for England at the last World Cup and was left out of Townsend’s initial training squad, only to be drafted in when Hogg made his shock announcement.

Elsewhere, the back row looks set to be the keenest contested part of the team, with Jamie Ritchie, Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey, Hamish Watson, Matt Fagerson and Luke Crosbie all expected to be on that plane. Scrum-half also looks strong for Scotland, with Toulon-bound Ben White in the box seat after usurping Ali Price for the Six Nations. The Glasgow man will be desperate to reclaim the jersey, particularly after injury curtailed his participation in the 2019 tournament in Japan. His clubmates George Horne and Jamie Dobie are also in the squad, the former having enjoyed a stellar season with Warriors.

Townsend is taking on four warm-up Test matches in the hope his squad will be battle-hardened for what lies ahead in France but it could also take its toll in terms of injuries. Sam Skinner was one of the unlucky ones to miss out four years ago when he damaged his hamstring in the preparation game against France and such is the physicality of international rugby that it would be a miracle if the entire squad were to come through unscathed from this year’s summer programme.

The trick now for the coach is to find the right blend to escape from a World Cup pool boasting the diverse talents of the Springboks, Ireland, Tonga and Romania. We’ll have a better idea over the next few weeks as to whether Scotland are equipped to finish in the top two.



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