There was something of an anticlimax about Scotland’s squad announcement last Tuesday and the cause was two-fold. Firstly, the sheer size of the squad mitigated against any great excitement – with 40 players it was last man standing for positions like tighthead – and while the numbers will help Gregor Townsend’s training sessions, it is difficult to get worked up when almost half those named won’t get any closer to Cardiff than the television in their front room.
Secondly, there was nothing really to get your teeth into from a journalist’s perspective. Admittedly there were four uncapped players but Eddie Jones trumped his Scottish rival by announcing eight in England’s big squad, three of whom played age grade for Scotland – Murrayfield too busy signing South African projects to see the Scottish talent under their very nose.
Moreover, D’Arcy Rae and Murray McCallum are there because the tighthead cupboard is bare, Blair Kinghorn is unlikely to play while Stuart Hogg draws breath, although Townsend suggested that the rangy full-back could do a shift on the wing, and scrum-half Nathan Fowles disappointed for the simple reason that he isn’t George Horne or Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, for which he can’t really be blamed.
The squad was defined almost as much by the players who were missing as those who were named. Townsend, pictured, must make do without four props, five if you include Darryl Marfo who might yet make a belated appearance, and two hookers. Moreover the rookie Six Nations coach is sweating on the fitness of several others including Duncan Taylor, who has struggled with a few too many head injuries, Hogg, who played – and scored – yesterday, and one time skipper Greig Laidlaw who, Townsend revealed to general surprise, would have captained Scotland in the autumn internationals had he been fit.
Much of the ensuing debate centred on the Cardiff scrum-half conundrum; does Townsend play Ali Price or rush the old head back into the action? It was a question the journalists asked in increasingly inventive ways without ever getting an answer.
“I think he played very well last year,” Townsend argued Laidlaw’s case. “There were times when Scotland played very high tempo and there were times when they slowed it right down to play closer to the pack and he managed that. He played the most minutes, sometimes he played 80 minutes, that was his most successful period, when he was fit and playing.”
That variation in pace is important because Scotland sometimes adopt slow motion inside the opposition red zone, simply because the new laws make it easy to retain possession. Look after the ball, show some patience and the chances are that something will come your way.
“We were really pleased with how Ali [Price] played in November,” said Townsend, now backing the younger man. “His game against Australia was outstanding, and certainly the way he played helped the team attack more and created opportunities for him to run, the ball was getting to Finn and other players’ hands and the defence started to leave holes for him [Price]…part of the reason we want that high-paced game, to find a hole in the defence somewhere.
“He [Laidlaw, again] obviously has more knowledge of the game, he’s played more rugby, he’s played more Tests that any of those guys combined so, if he’s back to full fitness and form, that should give him an advantage.”
There’s the clue, because it is impossible for Laidlaw to display “full fitness and form” after exactly one appearance off the bench for Clermont after that injury.
Add into the mix Townsend’s other comment, the scrummy has to be the “fittest player in the team”, and it becomes obvious that Price will start in Cardiff although the Borderer can’t be ruled out for later.
Elsewhere the arguments raged about the imbalance in Scotland’s back row which boasted two sevens in the autumn and no recognised ball carrier, although Cornell du Preez does a handy imitation.
Townsend gave the journalists a little more info than they bargained on, going into some detail about the merits of the four back row players who started in November. John Barclay brings leadership and intelligence, he insisted, Hamish Watson carries better than most sevens as well as having a nose for a turnover and Ryan Wilson links as well as offering lineout and leadership options while du Preez is intelligent and a good ball carrier.Admitting that selection wasn’t an exact science, Townsend concluded his lecture with the irrefutable argument that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it or, as he put it: “If that combination works really well and we get the outcomes then of course they will get another opportunity.”
He has David Denton in the squad and Townsend’s hinted that Josh Strauss might have made the cut but for injury so the coach is not without options, although it doesn’t look like he is going to use them, at least not in Cardiff. And anyway, back row isn’t the main area of concern. Jon Welsh looks like the only capped tighthead prop still standing and available for the opening fixture.
Contrast that with the seven Test centres Townsend has whistled up. Welsh has almost certainly improved his set scrum work during his time with Newcastle Falcons because the Aviva is an unforgiving place for props and Welsh has not only started every one the club’s 13 league matches to date but he went 72 minutes in the Falcons’ recent win over league leaders Exeter, whose forwards are not known for their charity.
Welsh may be asked to go the full 80 in Cardiff if the game is tight because his back up, in the form of McCallum or Rae, is uncapped, un-tried and un-Tested.
The inexperienced front row just adds backing to the narrative that Scotland have talented and dangerous backs but a small(ish) pack of forwards who will have sand kicked in the face by the Six Nations bully boys; remember what Italy did at Murrayfield on Vern Cotter’s debut season?
If he was worried by the possibility of England doing a Dean Richards and mauling Scotland into the Murrayfield turf, Townsend was putting on a brave face. “I’d argue against that we have a lightweight pack,” said the coach. “We have some big men in there. What is a team going to do to keep it tight? They are going to maul more… our maul defence was pretty good in November, if not very good, our maul attack was excellent, we got three tries from that, so that is an area we have been working on. Teams can do pick and goes, an area where Samoa did very well against us but we did much better after that.
“If they are trying to slow us down in the way we attack obviously we have to find solutions to beat that. If it’s just the fact that they are tackling well and putting 14 men in the front line, well, yeah, we have to be smart and go to where they might not be so strong.
“That is the challenge we have as a coaching team and the challenge the players have to adapt during the game but I believe we have a very physical pack, a pack who can [do] defence very well, a pack that can defend driven mauls very well and a pack, as they showed in November, that can also have an excellent maul themselves.”
We will discover the truth of that in the next few weeks and months.