Gregor Townsend says this Scotland squad is strongest he’s worked with since 1999
Gregor Townsend believes this is the strongest squad he has worked with as Scotland coach as he named a 39-man selection for the 2022 Six Nations and underlined his ambition to end the national side’s long wait for success.
They last won the Championship in 1999 when Townsend was in his pomp as a player and Italy had yet to be invited to the party.
Scotland continue to cling on to the mantle of last ever Five Nations champions but the frustration of seeing England, Wales, Ireland and France share the trophy in the seasons since grows more acute with each passing year.
The progress made under Townsend is undeniable and away wins last season against England and France proved Scotland have the talent and mentality to topple the big guns. A win over Ireland remains elusive for the coach and three wins in a season is the most Townsend’s side have managed in the Six Nations.
Last season’s two defeats - against Wales and Ireland - were by agonisingly small margins and the coach feels this squad is close to challenging for the title.
“We’d enter any game or any competition with the goal of winning what’s in front of us,” said Townsend. “We feel that the experiences our players have gone through over the last couple of years put them in a good position to know how to win a rugby game. It gives them the confidence that they’ve done that before.
“But more than that, the form that our players are in . . . The competition was really high, because our players are in really good form. So they should be confident as individuals, confident with the team, but we’re aware of what a big challenge this is.”
Asked if this was the strongest squad he had worked with, Townsend said: “Certainly in my experience as a [head] coach, assistant coach from 2009 to 2012, and probably as a player from 1999 onwards.
“The competition for places is intense. It’s not just saying, ‘there are three guys competing for places at centre that we’ve seen at training at Edinburgh but who aren’t playing’. No. The other week we had Sione [Tuipulotu] and Sam [Johnson] playing for Glasgow, and James Lang and Mark Bennett playing for Edinburgh in bonus point wins.
“We had Matt Currie coming in the following week, we had Matt Scott playing for Leicester, the current league leaders, Huw Jones playing for Harlequins, last year’s champions, Chris Harris and Rory Hutchinson. And that’s just in one position.
“Players are playing well at the highest level of the club game. So it is very competitive and that’s a good sign. If we do have injuries or anything that happens Covid-wise then we know we’ve got people who can step in.”
Lang, Currie, Scott and Jones all failed to make the cut. Other notable absentees are Adam Hastings, Fraser Brown, Dave Cherry, Oli Kebble, George Horne, Jamie Dobie and Ross Thompson. Townsend has challenged them all to prove him wrong but in the meantime he is concentrating on finding the winning blend for the opener against England at BT Murrayfield on February 5.
One puzzler is how to accommodate Rory Darge, one of five uncapped players in the squad. The openside flanker has been outstanding since moving to Glasgow from Edinburgh last spring but has the indomitable Hamish Watson blocking his path to the team.
Townsend said it would be “an interesting selection”.
“Hamish was Six Nations player of the championship last year and went on the Lions tour,” said the coach. “He didn’t have any rugby going into November and was getting himself back into it.
“He hasn’t had a huge amount of rugby [now] because Edinburgh missed a game in Europe which meant four weeks without a game with the 1872 Cup being called off. But he played really well in the Cardiff game with a lot of unseen work clearing contact which enabled others to play, and he’ll be available to play again this weekend.
“We think Hamish is one of the best players in the northern hemisphere and he’s coming back into full fitness and full form, and we’ve got someone who has had an outstanding season with Glasgow, performing really well in the big games.”
The absence of Hastings means Blair Kinghorn will understudy Finn Russell at stand-off, a bold call given his lack of minutes as an international ten. The Edinburgh man’s versatility clearly helped persuade Townsend who can also call on captain Stuart Hogg to deputise at fly-half in extremis.
Of the new boys, the coach has once again cast his net wide and the inclusion of a couple of former England Under-20 internationals will inevitably spark debate, particularly when one of them, the London Irish scrum-half Ben White, gets the nod ahead of Glasgow pair Horne and Dobie.
Andy Christie, the Saracens back row, is another ex-England U20 man to be called up, although he played also for Scotland U16s. Both qualify through Scottish grandparents.
Townsend makes no apology for scouring England for talent and says it reflects the Scottish diaspora.
“That is the modern player,” he said. “Their families move around and they’ve got a decision to make.”
White’s London Irish team-mate Kyle Rowe is another new name in the squad. The winger came through the Scottish club game at Falkirk, Glasgow Hawks and Ayr but needed to leave Edinburgh to make it at pro level.
“That’s a great story for someone who has not had the opportunities up in Scotland,” said Townsend. “He’s gone down and got into the team at London Irish through some really good pre-season performances then backing it up throughout the season: a hat-trick against Saracens - one of them was an absolutely outstanding try - and some consistent performances show he’s an exciting player that we want to work with.”
Ben Vellacott is the other uncapped player in the squad, reward for an exciting start to his Edinburgh career which has seen him score four tries in eight games following his summer move from Wasps.
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