Let’s get the bad news out of the way. If the Six Nations started next week, we’d be struggling up front.
Even when it does start, we’ll still be struggling. But you have to pick someone…
Since he took over in June, these are the props that Gregor Townsend has picked in match day squads: Allan Dell, Gordon Reid, WP Nel, Alex Allan, Zander Fagerson, Darryl Marfo, Jamie Bhatti and Simon Berghan. Swap Marfo and Bhatti for Jon Welsh then you have the 7 strong prop group from Vern’s last Six Nations squad. I think we can agree that the times for calling Al Dickinson the first choice loosehead are some distance in the past. When does “injury crisis” become “that’s how life is now”? Even from that (now established) group, Dell, Nel, Fagerson and Marfo are all injured.
The main source of the prop crisis is via Edinburgh, where Cockers has a very bare cupboard indeed. Before last week, Glasgow’s Jamie Bhatti and Zander Fagerson were the two in the driving seat – and Glasgow at least have non-Scots backup in Kebble and Halanukonuka. Edinburgh’s Murray McCallum (uncapped) has made strides with every game under Cockerill and can play both sides; he looked very solid against the Kings on Friday. Alex Allan has just 4 caps, and D’Arcy Rae is also a possibility having trained with Scotland before. If Rory Sutherland stays fit he’ll be right in the mix – he sat out the Kings game on Friday night but has played recently.
The other clear issue is that most of those guys are modern, dynamic ball-carrying types or just plain inexperienced. There aren’t that many old-school scrummagers of the type who become more important when you are packing down against hardened and experienced Six Nations packs. Even with Toony’s high-speed ChaosPlus™ we’ll need a few of those to avoid leaking penalties at the set-piece.
Marfo saw a back specialist recently and there is no word on recovery times for him or Dell*. WP Nel broke his arm against Samoa and was quoted at a minimum of 12 weeks absence which runs right to the end of the month. Unlikely he’ll be ready for the first two games – at best. I bang on about Zander’s ill-discipline a lot but he is definitely maturing and would have proven very influential in the next 2-3 months – but then came the bizarre foot injury that kept him out against Zebre. He’ll probably be in the squad at some point, but could now be looking at sitting out as many as the first three games.
As a result, don’t be surprised if any “old” stagers like Gordon Reid (London Irish) or Moray Low (Exeter) are called up. Another possibility is Kyle Traynor who has started games for Leicester this season but mostly in the Cup. His Premiership time amounts to 17 minutes from the bench across 4 matches.
It is Jon Welsh who is the most due for a recall, having started all 12 of fifth-placed Newcastle’s Premiership games so far this season. His experience – and form – are something Scotland badly need up front to support the efforts elsewhere. We can’t avoid the scrum forever and he should now be a certainty.
Having just a couple off the injured list by mid-tournament could give Scotland a huge boost, as will the return of Simon Berghan after the opening weekend. This is a depth tournament; 3½ fit props isn’t going to cut it. But after the autumn, it would be a bitter pill to end a tournament we have such hopes for with a much stronger squad than at the beginning. Nowhere do we need Toony’s June-November ability to fashion a Scotland team that plays the same regardless of personnel more than up front…
Squad (7): Rory Sutherland, Jamie Bhatti, Alex Allan, Gordon Reid, Jon Welsh, Simon Berghan, Murray McCallum.
Out: Al Dickinson, WP Nel, Darryl Marfo, Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson.
(Squad position numbers based on previous 6N squad).
Things are little better in the middle of the front row, where right now Stuart McInally is the man some distance ahead of his competitors and in the form of his life. Fraser Brown has this week been rested indefinitely due to ongoing concussion issues; he might not see the rest of the season never mind the Six Nations, and we wish him all the best.
Brown is surely the first second choice if he is fit to play but things get trickier after that. Ross “all the caps” Ford is recovering from a pectoral injury, with a 4 month layoff predicted in November that could see him out into March. Although like Pat MacArthur he’s a bit late in his career, Edinburgh’s Neil Cochrane is not far behind having trained in the autumn while Glasgow’s George Turner will surely be on the shortlist. He’ll only have the two European games to play himself into form after he, like Berghan, serves a ban. With Brown causing untold damage in the Calcutta Cup last time, the last thing Scotland needs is a front row with a rash streak so we hope he can control that frustration.
Squad (3): Stuart McInally, George Turner, Neil Cochrane.
Out: Ross Ford, Fraser Brown.
This area is usually pretty easy, and it remains so. Jonny Gray and Ben Toolis walk in; Richie Gray and Grant Gilchrist are fit (Gilcho even has form now too) so they’re in too, although Richie is short of games. The only debate is on the fifth backup spot, which would go to Scott Cummings in the absence of Tim Swinson who is recovering from hand surgery. Cummings picked up a hand injury of his own last week, and is also expected to be out for “up to 8 weeks”. Lewis Carmichael and Fraser Mackenzie are the next most likely candidates now that Anton Bresler has left for Worcester, lapsing his Scottish residency qualification with a squad call-up but no cap. So far Cummings is ahead of them all in terms of his play. You might actually see Townsend take 4 locks and, say, Rob Harley as cover to spare Edinburgh who will be left short there too.
Squad (5): Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Lewis Carmichael.
Out: Tim Swinson, Scott Cummings, Anton Bresler.
Another easy bit: the actual team will be John Barclay (capt) and Hamish Watson, plus AN Other. Picking that “other”, plus a backup on the bench is where it gets tricky though; you have to make sure that Scotland can retain the dynamism from the autumn even with a replacement or two. As we’ve already seen, the pack could be severely makeshift in some areas but they are going to need to perform to give that backline a chance. So mass experimentation could be unlikely here but there are still some names worth considering.
How about Luke Hamilton plus Watson and Barclay? Will former Welsh U20 Hamilton – who impressed during his first cap but has not started loads for the Tigers – fancy a crack at Wales in Cardiff? You can bet on it. Wales could be very depleted in the back row (and will wish Hamilton wasn’t now Scottish or they might have capped him) so Barclay at Number 8 might work better than it would against, say, France or England.
Sale’s Josh Strauss is out for 3-4 weeks with a shoulder injury, so a call-up for him is unlikely. The same probably goes for David Denton and Mitch Eadie, at underperforming Worcester and Northampton respectively. Denton is a tricky one, as despite Worcester woes he has scored 3 tries from 9 games and is reportedly hitting some form at last. London Irish are doing even worse but Vern Cotter favourite Blair Cowan tops the Premiership for turnovers and offloads. Might either be due a recall?
Closer to home the question is: is it too early for Matt Fagerson or Adam Ashe, just back from injury? With stalwart Ryan Wilson injured (ankle), Rob Harley may find a place again and Cornell du Preez did better than expected in the Autumn, but Ashe, Fagerson or Magnus Bradbury would be seen as more forward-thinking options. Jamie Ritchie has been superb for Edinburgh and if any of the tyros are getting a call-up it should be him.
John Hardie should be back playing for Edinburgh by the game on the 3rd but may need time to get his head right and there’s no word if Toony will even consider him following the off-field ban. Let us hope a return to form makes that an easier decision.
Squad (7): John Barclay (capt), Hamish Watson, Cornell du Preez, Luke Hamilton, Jamie Ritchie, Rob Harley, David Denton.
Out: Ryan Wilson, Josh Strauss, John Hardie, Adam Ashe.
Up next: The Backs
*Update: Dell is due back “by the end of next month” (Feb).