Having looked at the perilous state of the front row and how Scotland are looking elsewhere in the pack, attention turns now to the backline.
This is a pretty settled unit, key to deploying Townsend’s high tempo gameplane. Things aren’t quite so gloomy with most first choices fit or back to training soon, but with the glass half-empty we have two weekends of European action to whittle them down a bit (please, no). The good news is that Glasgow’s games are dead rubbers and some of the big names may be rested. Edinburgh’s backs haven’t troubled Scotland’s teamsheet much in recent seasons but they could also be looking at an easy qualification if they can put Stade Francais away this weekend and resting in the pack could help us get to Cardiff with a decent bill of health.
As with the debate on hookers, scrum-half is all about Ali Price and who backs him up. Under the tutelage of skills coach Mike Blair you could argue Glasgow try too much, too often but one thing not in doubt is the improvement in their young scrum-halves.
That wasn’t the case this time last year when it was perhaps 50/50 between Price and Laidlaw. Since Greig’s unfortunate run of injuries either side of the Lions tour, Price has shot ahead and we got a real look at Toony’s plan in action in the NZ and Australia games. Finn Russell’s goal kicking has also improved massively which takes that off the table as one of the key arguments to start Greig.
Over in France Laidlaw has resumed outdoor training, according to his Instagram account. That’s about as much as we know. If he was fit there’s a good argument to have him there to close games out as a Plan B – but can he maintain the Plan A if he had to be brought on early for an injury? There is also scope to call him up to camp in an ambassadorial role for his experience but his fitness is likely to be a doubt for a style of play he’s already not wholly suited to. It puts a lot of pressure on the other two who are in if Greig’s essentially on an advisory brief.
Ben Vellacott is a much-touted name having a good season and there is a temptation to get in there before Eddie Jones does, even if he is still in his first pro season. As Richard Cockerill said of Blair Kinghorn, 21 (or in this case 22) is not “young” for test rugby. Vellacott has been playing regularly but not always starting for Gloucester, and has dual eligibility. He represented Scotland through the age grades but has been coy on his allegiances for the simple reason that while he is “English” or “both” he remains more useful to Aviva Premiership clubs. He doesn’t suddenly become “foreign” in terms of the squad makeup even if he pitches up at Murrayfield, but the club gains funding for nurturing English-qualified players and he’s understandably keen to keep the employers sweet. He also fits the fast, attacking mode of play that Scotland have (and currently, England don’t as much) and for now edges Hidalgo-Clyne on form. If he’s not capped during either the Six Nations or the summer tour he may remain one that got away though and in all honesty, if the decision is delayed until the Summer you’d think England’s tour to South Africa would be more appealing to him than the usual Scottish hodge-podge – especially now our main side are good enough that this jaunt can only be viewed as a development tour. Here’s another interesting point: for most of his Scotland U20 career (around 2015) he was second fiddle to George Horne.
On Horne, he already looks to the manner born at Glasgow and has that Sevens pace that is hard to beat. He also could offer a goal kicking option. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne has improved massively this season which means he is back at the level where he was in his first season, being talked about as a Laidlaw replacement until Price appeared. If Townsend doesn’t go for Vellacott then he should pick the two young lads to backup Price (who is himself only 24). Henry Pyrgos is out of sorts at the moment and isn’t the reassuring deputy he once was. Nathan Fowles was in the squad ahead of Hidalgo-Clyne for his service in the autumn but looks to have been overtaken. Roll the dice, I say.
Squad (3): Ali Price, Ben Vellacott, George Horne
Out: Greig Laidlaw, Henry Pyrgos, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
Last year it was a choice of Finn Russell backed up by Duncan Weir or Pete Horne, with Ruaridh Jackson returning to the squad when Townsend took over and Weir barely seen since – mostly through injury. Finn Russell and Pete Horne are likely to continue as standoff and backup, although not quite interchangeable. When on his game, Finn Russell is world class in attack and can at times verge on unplayable – at least against Australia. Since last year he’s added kicking and a bit of maturity to his game but with a big money move to France now settled, this tournament could be his chance to justify the hype and silence the criticism that he is still too flighty in certain games.
As backup, Pete Horne has his critics but he’s been steady when appearing for Scotland aside from an early hiccup a couple of years back. Ruaridh Jackson will more than likely be around the squad to provide extra cover. Weir is injured and it is too soon for Adam Hastings. Things might get interesting in a few years as Hastings matures and when Jaco Van Der Walt qualifies…
Squad (2): Finn Russell, Pete Horne
Out: Duncan Weir
We’ve written whole articles on this in the past but currently the rosy glow from having the best set of midfield talent we’ve ever had is tempered by fitness issues. Townsend had Duncan Taylor in the summer but not Huw Jones, then the situation was reversed in the autumn. The question is, can we get SuperDunc into the squad to push the incumbents hard – and provide multi-skilled backup from the bench? And how quickly will Mark Bennett get back up to speed?
Huw Jones has not yet set the heather on fire for Glasgow as he adapts to new environs, but he’s probably had one bad game in a Scotland shirt and even then he scored two tries. Some of his touches and passes during Zebre game were class and he has a nose for a try. He and Defensive Dunbar are inked in already, having started all of the previous Six Nations and all of the Autumn Internationals. Expect Taylor to mount a strong challenge to start if he is fit but only injury or a serious dip in form is going to stop those two.
Currently Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor and Mark Bennett are all back to fitness. Duncan Taylor suffered a head knock after 20 minutes in Saracens’ win at the weekend; like Fraser Brown he keeps picking them up which is a worry. Hopefully, he will recover in time. We’ve not seen him for Scotland since the loss to Fiji when he was injured, but he was absolutely brilliant in the summer tour win over the Wallabies and should make the 23 if he’s fit.
Matt Scott was given things to work on by Townsend last year, but he’s only just back from ankle surgery and is short of game time. Toony will want genuine challenge for places and Scott may yet have a part to play if injuries come into it. Mark Bennett is in a similar situation after an even longer layoff, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he gets up to speed at Edinburgh but the opening games will almost certainly be too soon for him.
Nick Grigg, Chris Harris and Phil Burleigh were the backup centres in the autumn and Harris probably deserves another shot for strong Newcastle form – like Jon Welsh he’s played every game this season – but it could be any two from Scott, Bennett, Harris or Grigg to round out the training group.
Squad (5): Alex Dunbar, Huw Jones, Duncan Taylor, Chris Harris, Matt Scott
Out: Mark Bennett, Phil Burleigh, Nick Grigg
Trying to pick who to keep from this lot is quite tricky. Wonder fullback Stuart Hogg could be fit by as the weekend which is very welcome news, but it would be worth considering young Blair Kinghorn as backup purely because his form has shown no signs of dipping since the season started. Ruaridh Jackson is perhaps the more likely choice to challenge but if you are only picking 5 for the squad in this area, are three of them going to be “just” fullbacks? Kinghorn for me is more suited to cover wing if needed so he gets the nod despite the Ru-naissance, but Sean Maitland may get in ahead of them both on reputation.
Which brings us to the Sean Maitland question. He played very well against Australia but can seem dangerously nonchalant at times both for Saracens and Scotland. Contrast that with Byron McGuigan who was hungry and powerful on his Scotland debut, scoring two tries (although he got a red card back at Sale the week after).
Tommy Seymour’s toe was injured in the Samoa game and then allowed to deteriorate his game so badly that he’s not an automatic pick any more. He is class on his day and has a near-telepathic understanding with Hogg – that try they created for Jones against New Zealand was probably our best of the year. If he’s fit now he has been rested and goes well in training, you can be sure he starts.
Then it’s up to Byron McGuigan, Tim Visser, Dougie Fife, Lee Jones and Damien Hoyland to battle it out. Chris Harris, Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones have all spent time on the wing as has Mark Bennett, occasionally. There’s no shortage of competition but you need to look at try scorers who can defend. Visser didn’t feature in the Autumn and some suspect he’s out of favour for his defence but he still has 6 league tries in 9 games, one behind McGuigan who is in joint 2nd spot with 8 from 10. Lee Jones has had a damned good season, and he has the Glasgow backline thing going for him. It might come down to a choice between him and Visser.
Squad (5): Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Tommy Seymour, Byron McGuigan, Lee Jones
Out: Rory Hughes, Tim Visser, Ruaridh Jackson, Dougie Fife, Sean Maitland
Next: The Squad Balance and the 23 to face Wales