We can assume that Hamish Watson and John Barclay are definite travellers, and fairly confidently predict that Sam Skinner will make the cut as a second row/blindside flanker hybrid option. That leaves three (perhaps four) back-row slots, with Ryan Wilson, Jamie Ritchie, Blade Thomson, Josh Strauss, Matt Fagerson, Gary Graham and Magnus Bradbury all offering their own point of difference. But none of these names can be described as nailed-on starters in the navy blue jersey at this point, so it really is going to be fascinating to see who emerges during the next six to eight weeks to claim a seat on the plane to Japan.
A further complicating factor is that Townsend has already indicated that he would consider hooker Fraser Brown as a back-up flanker, if that provides him with some extra flexibility as he pieces together his squad.
“It is going to be one of the positions where a lot of quality players will miss out,” agreed Bradbury, one of the leading contenders, at yesterday’s press event to announce that Scottish Rugby and Italian kit supplier Macron have extended their long-standing association with a seven-figure partnership deal which will run through until 2026. “It is early days yet but I think it is already at the back of everyone’s head that the guys you are training alongside, who you are helping through the tough sessions, the guys you are sharing a room with and having fun with, are the same guys who are after the same place in the squad you are after.”
Bradbury found himself in the curious position of seeing his stock rise last season during the time he spent side-lined whilst recovering from a dislocated shoulder, with Scotland’s disappointing start to the 2019 campaign attributed largely to a lack of ballast in the back two rows of the scrum. At just under 6ft 4ins and just over 18 stone, the Oban-born 23-year-old not only offered an impressive physical dimension, but just as importantly he was returning to match fitness at just the right time.
After just one game back for Edinburgh – when he scored the winning try in a man-of-the-match performance against the Dragons in mid-February – Bradbury was thrown straight into the Scotland starting XV for their third round Six Nations match against France, and although he struggled at times to cope with the pace of the game in Paris he did hang in there for the full 80 minutes.
He also played the full 80 against Wales and was then one of Scotland’s try scorers during that sensational second half against England in the Calcutta Cup, bursting onto Ali Price’s pop pass and romping home from 25 metres for the third of Scotland’s scores, which pulled it back to a two-try game.
Scotland went on to get their noses in front, but couldn’t quite hold on for the sensational win, and had to settle in the end for a draw. Bradbury says it was hugely frustrating to get so close but not quite pull off what would have been one of the most dramatic victories by any Scottish sports team, but having had time to reflect on what happened at Twickenham he believes it can be a crucial launchpad for the team heading to the World Cup.
“It’s a game we can draw a massive amount of confidence from in terms of how we played and fought back in that second half,” he said. “But, on the flip side, we also need to look at how bad we were in the first half. We need to eradicate those mistakes and be able to put a full 80 minutes together heading into the World Cup.”
Bradbury’s aim this summer as he attempts to jostle his way into Scotland’s World Cup squad is to keep doing what initially got him that call-up during the Six Nations – but to do it better and more often. “I feel like I put in the hard work coming back from [that shoulder] injury, so it is about keeping that moving forward,” he explained. “Gregor wants me to be more physical and work on my consistency as well – so that comes from the fitness and being able to do what I do for the full 80 minutes instead of for 50 or 60 minutes and then dropping off.
“I’ll play wherever Gregor picks me. Whether that’s at No 8 or No 6, there are obviously some similarities between the two positions.
“You dare to dream,” he concluded. “It is the pinnacle in rugby. First of all, you dream of playing for Scotland, then if you are lucky enough to be in the mix when a World Cup is coming up then you want to do everything in your power to be involved. I’m just focused on working as hard as I can and putting my best foot forward for selection. Gregor is going to pick on form.”