Big decisions on Six Nations squad could make or break Gregor Townsend
The national head coach often likes to spring a surprise at these announcements and all will be revealed today but for now there are three clear talking points to consider.
The first is that, after a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations and early World Cup exit last year, Townsend knows he can’t afford another sub-par campaign if he hopes to stay in a job he took on in June 2017 and is contracted to until the end of the 2020/21 season.
The second is the decision to be made on the captaincy, which is linked to the third, the challenge to fill the voids left by the international retirements of three senior players – Greig Laidlaw, John Barclay and Tommy Seymour – who boasted a combined total of 207 caps.
After a bruising experience in Japan when, shattered by an opening thumping by Ireland in Yokohama then losing his starting place, Stuart McInally admitted at the end of last year he wasn’t sure if he would remain as captain. If that is the case then many tip Scotland’s star player Stuart Hogg to ascend to the role of national skipper. The two-time Six Nations player of the tournament didn’t enjoy the best outcome the last time he led his country, which ended in a shock loss to the United States in Houston on the 2018 summer tour, but his star power would certainly make him a high-profile figurehead who could galvanise the country’s team and rugby public.
Locks Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray could also contend, though it could be that Edinburgh hooker McInally does carry on. Aside from leadership, the loss of Laidlaw, Barclay and Seymour also leaves some big boots to fill from a playing perspective.
Glasgow scrum-halves Ali Price and George Horne will take the battle they have been waging at Scotstoun to the Test level as they contend to be Laidlaw’s heir in the Scotland No 9 jersey.
The exit of Barclay is assuaged by the impressive showings of young Edinburgh back-rowers Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury, while Seymour’s departure presents opportunities to the capital side’s 22-year-old tyros Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham.
An intriguing tussle for the centre spots awaits as the re-emergence of Matt Scott and Mark Bennett adds more depth alongside Sam Johnson, who had a breakout 2019, and anglos such as Northampton’s Rory Hutchinson, who was unlucky to miss the plane to Japan, and Townsend favourite Chris Harris of Gloucester.
But it is the first point which looms largest and there is a sense of deja vu as an away trip to Ireland presents a daunting tone-setting test.
Scotland’s World Cup ended back at Yokohama with defeat by hosts Japan, after which Townsend said: “I feel very lucky and privileged to be in this role. If someone else was to do it the least I could say is that I’ve enjoyed the time here.
“There’s highs and lows, but I know I’ll be a better coach for the experience, the team will be better, but the proof will be in the next games.”