Tough choices but positive vibes from new Scotland coach

It has been 265 days since it was announced that Gregor Townsend would be replacing Vern Cotter as Scotland head coach and the now former Glasgow Warriors boss had probably been thinking about the time he might, one day, take charge of his national team for a good deal longer.
Gregor Townsend outside  BT Murrayfield after announcing his first squad as the new Scotland coach.Gregor Townsend outside  BT Murrayfield after announcing his first squad as the new Scotland coach.
Gregor Townsend outside BT Murrayfield after announcing his first squad as the new Scotland coach.

With his feet under the table at last, he was exuding positivity about the task in hand as he faced the media yesterday following the announcement of the summer-tour squad, but he has had an early introduction to one of the less pleasant aspects of the job – that dreaded phone call to those who haven’t made the cut. The most high-profile omission from the 34-man squad that will travel to face Italy in Singapore, Australia in Sydney and Fiji in Suva next month was Grant Gilchrist – the Edinburgh lock who was lined up to be Vern Cotter’s Scotland skipper for the 2014 autumn Test series before injury intervened. His Edinburgh team-mates, Cornell du Preez and Duncan Weir, were others to miss out. Gilchrist’s loss is Ben Toolis’s gain as one of only two Scots to be named in this season’s Guinness Pro12 Dream Team gets the nod.

The 26-year-old Gilchrist has struggled with form this year and often not started for his club, though Cotter did call Gilchrist straight back into the Scotland XV when he lost Richie Gray to injury for the final Six Nations match against Italy.

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“[As a club coach] I’d tell guys on a Tuesday morning when we named the team rather than having to phone them up,” said Townsend. “But it’s a similar process. With a squad of 45 at Glasgow a lot of guys missed out and you have to give feedback to them. I spoke to Grant yesterday [Sunday]. We and he are pleased he has got back to form over the past few weeks as it has been a tough year for him. But in the last few weeks he has stood up and played well for Edinburgh.

“It’s great that he has finished the season back to the form he was in before injury. We are aware of the quality he brings. Against the two Gray brothers, Tim Swinson, who is in the form off his life, and Ben Toolis, who has played consistently well for Edinburgh for two years, he just misses out.

“It’s the same case with the back row. Nobody selected for the Lions and nobody injured and the likes of Dave Denton, Cornell du Preez, Adam Ashe miss out.”

Townsend was delighted to be able to include tighthead prop WP Nel after his long battle with a neck problem this season and Josh Strauss.

“WP’s delighted with where he is physically and how his neck has improved,” said the coach. “WP started contact this week. Normally, you get passed to return to contact if you pass various markers, which he has done. Josh will be doing contact today.”

In comparison to the calls to the likes of Gilchrist, those made to the three uncapped players in the squad – D’arcy Rae, 22, Nick Grigg and George Turner, pictured, both 24 – would have been more pleasant.

“George has come through strongly this year. The feedback from a lot of people who worked with him was positive throughout the season,” said Townsend. “He didn’t get the opportunities at Edinburgh because of the standard of hooker they have. But in the last couple of weeks he has been involved and I thought he was excellent against Dragons with the speed he plays and and his excellence in defence. He has an opportunity to go out there and take. He is suited to 
the kind of game we want to play. D’arcy has been very consistent this year. A minute into the Pro12 semi-final last year Zander [Fagerson] got injured and D’arcy played 79 mins and played really well. That gave me confidence that he could play at the highest level.

“Nick Grigg is an interesting one. Two years ago I got a message from Andy Leslie, father of [former Scotland players] John and Martin, talking about this player who was Scottish-qualified who he thought really could make it across in Scotland.

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“He played at his club team in the Wellington area and said he was worth a chance.

“He looked really good at club level that we saw on his footage. He came over on a four-week trial and his energy and enthusiasm was fantastic and we got him an academy contract. Some of his performances for Glasgow have been fantastic. He is in good form and 
has to go on that tour believing he can play Test match rugby.”

Townsend’s first squad works out as an even balance of 17 Glasgow players and 17 from Edinburgh or Exiles.

The coach said: “The ten and seven are players we rate highly.

“Our job is to get to know them better.”