With both Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour away with the British and Irish Lions, Scotland will miss a huge chunk of the creativity that led them to three Six Nations wins. As he begins his tenure as Scotland coach on the forthcoming summer tour, Gregor Townsend will need to rely fairly heavily on Finn Russell to pull the strings from stand-off.
With fewer Lions than expected and a logjam of forgotten Englishmen (Joe Launchbury, Dylan Hartley) in the reserves queue, expect Townsend to pick all the front-line players available to him, so Tim Visser is likely to be joined in the back-three by Sean Maitland, at full-back, and one of Rory Hughes, Damien Hoyland or the in-form Lee Jones on the other flank.
Duncan Taylor has come back in good form with Saracens, and will push for the number 13 jersey in the absence of both Huw Jones and Mark Bennett – Alex Dunbar will have to go some to give up the number 12 jersey, but expect Matt Scott and Pete Horne to provide cover. Things will get interesting again in the Autumn if everyone is fit (apart from Bennett who faces a long layoff).
Speaking of Horne, he is likely to also provide back-up to Russell at stand-off, while Greig Laidlaw looks like he’ll be back playing in time to return to the number nine jersey, with Ali Price and Henry Pyrgos again his deputies.
Up front, expect little change in the front row, barring what we hope will be the l0ng-awaited return of WP Nel to the dark blue jersey, while both Gray brothers will be out to prove Gatland wrong after they missed out on a place in his squad – Ian Henderson and George Kruis preferred and Launchbury the most likely first port of call if an injury occurs.
John Barclay produced a stellar Six Nations, and is another perhaps slightly unlucky to have been overlooked, as is Hamish Watson, and that pair will be readying themselves for a battle at the breakdown with Michael Hooper when the Wallabies are Scotland’s opponents in Sydney. With Laidlaw ready to resume the leadership role, Barclay will likely resume as the Vice-Captain.
There are always injury-enforced call-ups to Lions squads, and with Scotland only just across the Tasman, I would expect Warren Gatland and his coaches to be keeping an eye on the performances of the Gray brothers, Laidlaw, Fraser Brown, Nel, Russell and Watson with any bumps or knocks in mind.
Townsend will be, on one hand, disappointed not more of his charges have earned Lions recognition, but I expect he is also thrilled he will have most of his first-choice stable available and firing on all cylinders when they head for Singapore to take on Italy. This will be his chance to get the squad moving in the direction he wants, which shouldn’t be too different to the one Vern Cotter had them going in.
There is a down side, though – the likes of Magnus Bradbury (currently injured) and Scott Cummings, who I had previously tipped to tour, are now unlikely to make the plane as there are fewer empty seats, but Townsend’s building process could still see a less experienced hooker join Brown and Stuart McInally. That would allow Ross Ford – himself a Lions injury replacement, in 2009 – some time off and give Townsend a look at, most likely, Pat MacArthur, who hasn’t played for Scotland since the win over Argentina in Cordoba three years ago.
The immediate disappointment of only two Scotsmen earning Lions calls should not be the over-riding feeling looking ahead to the summer, as Townsend’s full-strength side should be targeting three wins over a faltering Italy, an Australia side at the start of their international season, and Fiji.
Here’s a look at the Scotland side I believe will take on Australia:
15 Sean Maitland, 14 Lee Jones, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain); 1 Gordon Reid, 2 Fraser Brown, 3 WP Nel, 4 Richie Gray, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 John Barclay (vice-captain), 7 Hamish Watson, 8 Ryan Wilson
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 David Denton, 21 Ali Price, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Matt Scott
Jones gets the nod over Hoyland and Hughes due to his recent good form, but another school of thought says Matt Scott could play at 13 with Taylor deployed on the wing or indeed fullback. The rest of the backs really pick themselves.
Into the pack, and the front-row, where Reid and Dell are retained as the first choice looseheads as Dickinson needs time to get back to 100%, even if he’s overcome that long-term foot problem. WP Nel is likely to be back, and would take the tighthead berth from young Zander Fagerson who suddenly makes the bench look a lot stronger.
The second row would see the Brothers Gray reunite, with Tim Swinson providing cover from the bench and Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis likely to join them on the tour.
Into the back-row, it seems unlikely John Hardie or Josh Strauss will play before the season’s end, so I’d expect little change from the end of the Six Nations. David Denton gets onto my bench due to Cornell Du Preez’s indifferent recent form and injury troubles, but expect the Edinburgh man to travel and earn more caps.