Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


The Rule of Three, aka Shuffling the Log Jam

Greig Laidlaw - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography
Greig Laidlaw - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography

This isn’t the one about written or visual composition, so if you arrived here via an ill-advised google click looking for writing or photography tips, sorry. However they do say that things coming in threes are easier to comprehend, so rugby fans please do follow on; we’re going to go depth-charting again.

Regular commenter Merlot posted on the comments the other week a reference to a top coach (possibly Warren Gatland or Eddie Jones) saying that for truly useful depth you need three players competing in every position.

Which got me thinking.

In some positions, Scotland’s often limited rugby player pool can now boast that when they assemble the squad, but Merlot’s version came with a caveat: in order to get them game time outside of international periods, the ideal scenario with specific regard to Scotland would be one top class international at each pro team, and one exile – all starting regularly for their teams.

The three player idea is grand if you have 4 regions as Ireland and Wales do, or 12 teams in the Liam Gallagher Premiership, but for now, we have to rely on exiles as our extra talent stream.

I thought I’d have a look and see how far off that we were, in terms of having one of each available to Scotland. Capped players and those more recently selected by Townsend were given a level of priority when selecting, and I’ve tried to stick to positions where players either play regularly or have been recently capped.

Fullback: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Greig Tonks (exile)
At international level we’re already engaging in a swapsie to avoid a logjam, by making the in-form Kinghorn a wing in order to get him international experience at the highest level. Here he’s back to being a fullback, where he is getting plenty of game time for his club. Duncan Taylor or Sean Maitland could do a job at the back but don’t appear often enough there for Sarries. That means that Folau-tamer Greig Tonks is the next option available from the exiles branch.

Wings: Tommy Seymour + Lee Jones, Dougie Fife + Damien Hoyland, Byron McGuigan + Sean Maitland
Most of these guys will feature in the coming season’s campaign, although Hoyland hasn’t been capped in a while, but at a glance it reaffirms that Edinburgh are a little short on top quality international wings, perhaps a hangover from the Solomons regime. That could change if Darcy Graham has a breakout season. McGuigan (and Kinghorn) aside, these are all familiar faces – not too many new names have broken through in recent years so Tim Visser’s retirement forces Maitland in here, and Tonks above.

Outside Centre: Huw Jones, Mark Bennett, Chris Harris
There will inevitably be some debate about which way round to play the centres, but I’ve gone for the big lump in defence at 12 and spritely attack from 13, which up until fairly recently was how things traditionally panned out for Scotland. Unfortunately looking at it that way means I have to pick Chris Harris at 13 here in the absence of other candidates, an experiment I don’t think Townsend has given up on just yet.

Inside Centre: Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor
With Dunbar a clear starter if he’s fit, there’s no room here for Mr Useful Pete Horne despite the fact it feels like he’s played a part in every game since Raquel Welch had the fur bikini on. James Lang is another capped 12 who could have featured here for the exiles but we don’t really know enough about him yet. What I could do is pick James Lang at 12 off the back of a decent 20 minutes, and put Duncan Taylor back up at 13 if we’re feeling a bit uneasy about Chris Harris. Taylor hasn’t played for Scotland since 2016, nor Matt Scott since last summer. Logjam alert: throw in Horne, Nick Grigg and soon-to-qualify Sam Johnson and that’s a bunch of Scottish centre talent all trying to push through from one club side, the Warriors.

Standoff: Adam Hastings, Calum McLelland*, Finn Russell
Pete Horne misses out here too as he’s not really a standoff, but the glaring issue in the now-absence of Duncan Weir is a lack of Scots qualified international-level 10s at Edinburgh next season. Jason Baggott and Calum McLelland are the next off the rank from the academy with Cape Town born Baggott now qualified on residency after 3 years in the academy whilst playing for Melrose. McLelland has no pro appearances and is aged just 19*. They’ll also struggle to get past Simon Hickey (NZ) and Jaco Van Der Walt (SA), this year at least. It’s a clear issue for Scotland, if not for Edinburgh – who could be looking at a couple of classy operators in the 10 shirt to help Duncan Hodge bring the young talent through over the next few years.

Scrum-half: George Horne, Henry Pyrgos, Greig Laidlaw
Another strong group. Henry Pyrgos has just signed for Edinburgh almost for the very reasons we’re looking at here, where he was stuck behind Horne and Ali Price while the capital club had little depth to shout about; this list would have seen Nathan Fowles appear in the Edinburgh slot if I’d written it a few weeks ago. Sam Hidalgo Clyne (now at Scarlets) and Price still at Glasgow mean there is depth under the depth, and we’re looking pretty good if they all kick on. Glasgow’s worry would be that Nick Frisby becomes indispensable to Dave Rennie, but that won’t hurt Laidlaw or Pyrgos’s chances of more caps.

Loosehead Prop: Jamie Bhatti, Allan Dell, Gordon Reid
To start off the pack positions, Scotland are doing well here with three guys who could all comfortably start for the national side and plenty of depth to back it up. Edinburgh, in particular, may need to offload some international candidates to get them game time: behind Dell sits Darryl Marfo, Rory Sutherland, Al Dickinson* as well as Pierre Schoeman as non-qualified cover. Oh, and Murray McCallum could probably do a job there too. Up the M8 Jamie Bhatti is the coming man but there is less of a jam behind him and exiled looseheads are thin on the ground. Seeing, say, Rory Sutherland move west wouldn’t be a surprise unless Dickinson retires*.

Hooker: Fraser Brown, Stuart McInally, Scott Lawson
Getting Stuart McInally regular game time out from the shadow of Ross Ford has illustrated nicely the need for this discussion, but it also shows that coaches having faith plays a big part in a player getting a chance and being equipped to seize it. Various challengers to Ford have come and gone while he accumulated 100+ caps but you can argue that even Fraser Brown didn’t really step his game up till he could see there was a genuine chance to play in the number 2 shirt for his country. The next level down Glasgow have cover that can come through in George Turner and Academy player Grant Stewart, while Edinburgh still have Ford waiting to step back up to the plate and former Under 20s man David Cherry. The ageing Lawson aside, there aren’t that many Scots-qualified hookers about, certainly with caps. There’s Jake Kerr at Leicester or Alun Walker at Ealing Trailfinders – one for the exiles program to look into.

Tighthead: Zander Fagerson, Simon Berghan, Moray Low
Again, Edinburgh are loaded with Scots qualified players in this position, with WP Nel and Murray McCallum both capped and Berghan currently holding down the top spot, just. It’s easy to forget how young Zander Fagerson still is and with the even younger Murray McCallum looking a useful prospect, we’re finally starting to see talent come on stream at both pro-teams. With such a technical and physical position it must be difficult to find a balance between having enough props to cover injury and yet still get them all experience in games. Again though, it is perhaps an illustration of how Scottish props are rated outside of these borders that our top exiled front rowers are Reid (Championship), Lawson (age 36 and retiring) and Low (just 4 Premiership starts last season).

Locks: Jonny Gray + Tim Swinson, Grant Gilchrist + Ben Toolis, Richie Gray + Andrew Davidson
Aside from not too many locks available in the exiles channel, things look pretty good here. Tim Swinson’s absence through injury for a large portion of the season should allow Scott Cummings to continue pushing for a cap, while over at Edinburgh Lewis Carmichael and Callum Hunter-Hill will be challenging for game time especially in the international periods. Outside the pro teams, big Richie Gray is the only player likely to make an international squad. Ollie Atkins at Exeter and Andrew Davidson of Newcastle both have Scotland A and age grade caps respectively but Davidson is the only one likely to see more.

Blindside Flanker: Ryan Wilson, John Barclay, Mitch Eadie
Scotland’s captain usually plays here and like a lot of the candidates, can cover positions across the back row which makes discussing this area a little bit like a game of whack-a-mole. Glasgow’s workhorse and club skipper Ryan Wilson is best suited here for his tenacity and workrate. Luke Crosbie, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Luke Hamilton are just some of the Scottish players stacked up behind Barclay (once he’s fit) at Edinburgh that could cover here, but such is the versatility of the modern back row that they’ll probably still get game time somewhere across the row. In the exiles slot I’ve gone for Northampton’s Mitch Eadie, who plays a lot at 6 but also covers across the row.

Open-side Flanker: Chris Fusaro, Hamish Watson, John Hardie
Edinburgh are looking pretty good in this area even with Hardie leaving, current destination rumoured to be Clermont. Assuming he doesn’t get the call from Dave Rennie or disappear home like Hugh Blake, that makes him an exile. Behind clear first choice Hamish Watson, Ritchie and Hamilton could both offer cover here too for the capital men but for Glasgow it’s a choice between the callow youth of Matt Smith (uncapped), the much older Chris Fusaro or occasionally Ryan Wilson – who tends not to perform as well in a role that gets him a lot of attention from officials. Their standout player in this shirt is, of course, Callum Gibbins – not Scots qualified and often team captain for the Warriors. If Hardie pitched up at Glasgow (now unlikely) he’d jump to the top of their list but with Barclay back home from Wales now that would mean it would be 32-year old Blair Cowan (loaned from Irish to Saracens briefly last season) or similar we’d be looking at in the exiles slot.

Number 8: Matt Fagerson, Magnus Bradbury, Dave Denton
This is often touted as a problem position for Scotland and you can see why – both pro team candidates here are pretty raw though undeniably talented, and exile Dave Denton is only just back as the go-to guy following a reasonable summer. Josh Strauss is out of favour with Townsend since Fiji last year and Cornell du Preez is also in the wilderness after failing to live up to expectations at test level in the past. Bradbury had a good tour though he’ll have to get past Bill Mata at club level. While an injury-free season for Adam Ashe (don’t we say that every year?) would be a big boost for Glasgow’s back row depth. Eadie is another possibility where there are a number of choices in all three streams, but no clear standout.

Of course, we don’t have the luxury of looking at it like this for actually selecting a squad – thank goodness. In actual fact it is often preferable to have the welfare of our front-line international players controlled by the union’s medical staff and this probably offsets the areas where too many players are trying to get game time, especially given the versatility of the modern rugby player as well as the attritional nature of a season’s worth of injuries.

Looking at our player base this way does highlight the positions where there is a bit of an issue though.

In terms of player numbers, I’d say the problem positions were wing, standoff, and tighthead, with hooker a slight concern for finding younger players to bring through. Lock and fullback are an issue in terms of game time too but there is actually plenty of talent available to play there into the next World Cup cycle and beyond.

It shows that we’ve a lot of depth in some areas (loosehead, back row, scrum-half, centre) that we knew about, but also how easy it can be for a regular starter at one club (Ross Ford, Stuart Hogg etc) to create a logjam for players to come through to the national side behind them.

Additional reporting: Gav Harper and Kevin Millar

* Update 14/08: It was announced today that young McLelland is switching codes back to league and has signed for Leeds Rhinos (he may also revert to representing England in that sport as opportunities will be greater). A disappointing end to that experiment but if his talent is as predicted by some, don’t be surprised to see him switching back to Union in 7-8 years once he is fully mature and the big bucks come calling… Meanwhile it moves South African Jason Baggott up the ranks as the next available Scottish-qualified standoff at Edinburgh. Prop Alisdair Dickinson also announced his retirement to concentrate on coaching – he will take up a role with the FOSROC Academy.

25 Responses

  1. What a well thought out piece! I cannot believe nobody has thought of doing this sort of analysis before! Haha.
    Seriously though, it does look at things differently and (possibly) gives an idea of how to sort out certain problems. For example, we all know that we were (are?) desperate for a backup to Finn. With Finn moving to Racing that creates a chance for Hastings (and Horne, perhaps) to get more game time in this pivotal position. However that still only gives us two possible fly-halves. Hopefully Cockerill and Hodge can give McClelland a go.

    1. Indeed – scored a try as well. Played at 12 with Dunbar outside him (?!).
      To be fair to Rory though, the SRU website is missing that game for SuperDunc, along with two others.

    1. Isaac Miller has moved from LS to Worcester. However even I wouldn’t say he’s in the running for a full cap ( yet ! )

    2. To be fair, the front row is the possible exception to the “rule of three” – having an international playing outside Scotland. As most front-rows get substituted after 50-60 minutes, there is the possibility to get decent game time even if you’re not first choice in your position at the club.

      1. Relatedly, a team has 23 names on the sheet…of which 6 are front row, 2 sets of halves and so on….but only 1 or 1.5 in most other positions plus a “utility” bench spot or two.

        So, then, to claim depthx3 (i.e. 2 spares for a game) we need 4 in each front row and specialist spot (not 3)…but can get away with 5 for locks, centres and wingers (2.5)…and maybe 8 back rowers overall. 3 at FB.

        Reinforces the need for more/better props (LH not great in my view) and hookers, at stand off and eases the worries on the wing and at lock…

  2. Would have went with Jon Welsh instead of Moray Low for exile tightheads, he gets a lot of game time for Newcastle and was in the 6 nations squad

  3. Would have went for the former Hurricanes Blade Thompson over Mitch Eadie as the exile 6.

    I dont like the idea of Harris in the centre

    12: Dunbar Scott Lang
    13: Jones Bennett Taylor

    Apart from those minor details you get Neils seal of approval.

  4. I forgot to add For the glasgow locks i would of course remove Swinson as go for cummings just to bring some dynamism to the overall lock squad.
    (I would not be shocked if Kiran Mcdonald has a big season and puts himself into contention)

    1. You do like picking inexperienced or even completely untested players in your teams/squads, Neil. I think you need to temper your hope that these youngsters come good with a bit of realism that the RWC is no place to try a few “bolters”.

  5. Good point on the requirement for front row depth being different given they often share game time. Also thanks for pointing out Jon Welsh Scot95, I clean forgot about him!

  6. Interesting update on Hardie. Wonder whether he’ll have any interest in playing for Scotland in the future or if both parties have drawn a line under it. He could still be a really valuable player for us.

    1. When the article headline was “with one condition” I thought maybe Clermont would put a no International clause of some sort in but it turns out the “condition” was just that he can get fit.

    2. He’s definitely still in the mix. Townsend mentioned him a few times around the summer tour. Also suspect that some of his recent surgeries have been paid for by SRU (although could be through his own player insurance). This is purely conjecture on my part based on some stuff he’s put up on social media but my guess is he’s being given a chance to earn a contract in France. If nothing materialises I think SRU will bring him back and add him to Glasgow squad on a 1 year contract to allow him a chance to prove his fitness etc.

  7. You’ll need another 10. McLelland is off. He’s gone back to play league for Leeds.

    1. Not a surprise but a real shame. His scrummaging improved no end after stints away in England & he became a top class loose head. Wish him all the best in his new role & hope his enthusiasm & skills transfer to his charges at the academy.

      1. Think his scrummaging improved after the “big hit” was taken out of the equation. That meant it’s more about technique, and he certainly had that – adapted really well. Wish him all the best for the future.

    2. Sad that Al Dickinson has been forced to retire as he had become a real test prop at least we have a few decent young guys starting to come through.

  8. anyone know if there will be a livestream or somthing for the pre-season games of edinburgh/glasgow ?

    1. I’ve a feeling Glasgow is being streamed somewhere but it might only be season ticket holders/subscribers or something who can see it. I may have misread it, was a while back.

      1. Yup found it on twitter: “This game [Harlequins] will not be shown live but there will be highlights. Our game against Northampton will be live for our Members. Re-run available to everyone.”

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