If that victory over France last weekend, only Scotland’s third in the Six Nations, put a smile on Gregor Townsend’s face, the Scotland coach must have been dancing on the sidelines of Netherdale yesterday as not one but two tighthead props put their hand up for consideration for next weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash.
In truth, the big match may come a little too soon for Zander Fagerson, who has only just returned to training and joined the Scotland squad for their public hit out in Gala yesterday. However, the barrel-shaped South African WP Nel, most pundits’ choice for last year’s Lions squad, has fully recovered from the broken arm he suffered against Samoa last November and has been training for several weeks according to his coach.
“You will be able to see because he’s running around,” said Townsend when asked about Nel’s return to fitness. “He trained with us on Wednesday, we’re just having a look.
“Zander came in today largely because Glasgow are away playing and so are Edinburgh. We’ll see how they get on this week and potentially next week we’ll be able to make a call on when they are available or it might be after the England game.
“Obviously this is Zander’s first session with us. He only resumed training this week. WP [Nel] has been training for a couple of weeks now but we need to get a good look at them and see how they react but it will be next week that we will have a clearer picture.
“We had three tightheads missing going into Wales. It dropped down to two with Simon [Berghan] coming back and he played really well. Jon [Welsh] had that experience of playing down in Wales. So those two players, plus Murray [McCallum] in the mix, we’d be fairly confident that they would do a good job. Getting one of Zander or WP back in the next couple of weeks would be a boost.”
The superb form of Berghan against France masks any immediate need to tinker with Scotland’s starting front row but Jon Welsh was not used last weekend, which is exceptionally rare given the tighthead’s workload and, if Nel looks anything like his old self, Townsend will be tempted to plonk him on the bench and ask him for 20 or 30 minutes against England. Especially in light of the fact that England have their own specialist loosehead, in the shape of Joe Marler, recently returned from suspension.
The other two players fighting to be fit are Fraser Brown, who is suffering from too many head knocks for anyone’s liking, and big Richie Gray, who is due back in training with Toulouse next week although, like Fagerson, the Calcutta Cup looks a little too soon for the long lock.
“It’s a huge boost,” said Townsend of the returning front row forwards in particular. “And to have those players who are very experienced, in similar positions, and obviously have played a lot of games for Scotland and played really well, that’s a boost.
“The other one is Richie Gray. We will know more this weekend whether he will be back in full training, too. Another player with a lot of experience of playing with Scotland.”
But that wasn’t the only boost Scotland’s players received yesterday because they not only enjoyed an open training session on the hallowed turf of Netherdale, where Townsend both started and ended his rugby career, but they were cheered on by almost 2,000 fans according to the coach.
“I think it will be an excellent day for the supporters,” said Townsend. “The players get a boost too, seeing so many supporters come out to see them train but also when you play in front of a crowd the focus goes up a little bit more. Obviously I am biased that we are here at Gala in the Borders but the response we have had so far has been excellent.
“I played here as a seven-year-old and playing on the field back then, it was the biggest pitch you felt you ever played on in a sevens tournament. My last game was here as well, for the Borderers. So to start a career and finish it in the same place with friends and family was important.”
After losing last year’s match against England by 61-21 Scotland are going to need all the support they can muster.
“I think last year is irrelevant because the game was played at Twickenham,” Townsend insisted, more in hope than expectation. “It was a game that we will definitely look at because England played a certain way against us that day, in attack and defence, and who knows what they will do in a weeks time but it is likely that they will have thought that was successful and do something similar.
“Our players experienced that and our coaches have analysed that so it will definitely go into the mix to help prepare the team.”