The second row is set to be the biggest headache for Scotland coach Gregor Townsend as he announces his Scotland squad tomorrow, but there will be several more key questions to answer as he puts the finishing touches to a squad set for an unfamiliar four autumn tests.
What happens if a lock gets injured?
A tweet from our PreviewMaster™ (and creator of the term Hornstings) Kevin Millar highlighted just how desperate the situation has become with the announcement yesterday that Richie Gray is still suffering from his back injury and could be out until well into the Six Nations. While it means he should at least be fit and rested as the summer looms, for now that means two out of the usual group of 4-5 are injured, along with the next capped understudy, Edinburgh’s Lewis Carmichael. As this list Kevin came up with shows:
Scott Cummings *
Kiran McDonald *
Callum Hunter-Hill *
Ollie Atkins (Exeter) *
Andrew Davidson (Newcastle) *
Murray Douglas (Hurricanes) *
Gray, Toolis and Gilchrist would be many (not all) people’s first choice for the match day 23, but after that, the next level down on the list is very inexperienced. The 6’6″ Rob Harley hasn’t had a cap since 2017, although he made last year’s Six Nations training squad. He could well be in line for a recall as he’s in good form for Glasgow – where he’s been playing in the second row these last few weeks. As a part of a pack making inroads in the Premiership, Exeter’s Ollie Atkins could be part of the group too.
Is it too late for newcomers?
Having imprinted “The Toony Way” on his team, this could be the last time to blood new faces and get them to buy into the ethos, game plan and pace of play he wants Scotland to have. Next year’s warm up matches against France and Georgia will be too late, and the Six Nations is unforgiving. Scotland, starting now, need to build familiarity and consistency going into 2019 and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Chief among those latecomers could be Blade Thomson, the New-Zealand born Scarlets Number 8. He’s a classy footballer with good hands as well as being a big lad, and Scottish grandparents have put him on the radar of many. He told the Welsh press it was something he had considered. He turns 28 in December so he’s not a long-term solution, but he could be the latest in a line of southern hemisphere imports who have tried to fulfil the “ball-carrying back row” role while also ticking that “project players are okay if they’re decent” box that should see him welcomed rather than vilified.
Another face yet to feature for Scotland would be Gary Graham (one of the many alliterative sons of George) who Iain Morrison suggests would be a ready-made call up despite having featured in recent Eddie Jones training squads (alongside Cameron Redpath and Ben Vellacott). Not sure about that one.
There are also a few relative newcomers that the jury is still out on. Having played last autumn, Luke Hamilton didn’t get much time on the summer tour and has played sporadically for Edinburgh where he’s got stiff competition even with John Barclay injured. Newcastle’s Chris Harris and Harlequins James Lang are players who may yet play a part in the backs, although Harris might have run out of lives if Duncan Taylor and Mark Bennett were fit.
Having played in the summer, some younger but not wholly new faces will definitely be back: Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury and George Horne would be counted among them. Adam Hastings too is the most likely to play at 10 against Wales, as Finn Russell will not be released by Racing for that one as it falls outside the window. Experience of a hostile Millennium Stadium but in an essentially meaningless fixture could be invaluable for his development.
Will we see any old faces back?
An alternative to Blade Thomson perhaps sits ready made in the shape of Josh Strauss, the Sale Sharks Number 8. He hasn’t started many games though as he plays in the captain’s position, and still suffers from association with a summer tour loss to Fiji last year. Might some of the victims of the USA suffer a similar fate?
Many of them dispatched Argentina the following week so redemption perhaps came quickly enough for those young lads to spare them the fate of Strauss, Henry Pyrgos, Tim Visser or Damien Hoyland who were cast into the wilderness. One face who hasn’t featured much since that match but I would like to see back is John Hardie, currently without a club. As a player without a club (there were rumours of a short term deal at Scarlets, and Clermont seemingly didn’t rate his fitness), his lack of match sharpness is likely to go against him here though. A call up as part of the training group might help him as an individual but Townsend isn’t too sentimental it seems.
How many scrum halves?
Greig Laidlaw and George Horne are probably the two standout candidates in terms of form and experience (Greig’s currently third in the Top 14 points scoring table behind our own Finn Russell), but they are both very different players. With the rise of Adam Hastings at Glasgow after he earned his first cap in the summer, Greig is now less likely to be considered as cover at ten except in emergencies and will have to compete on his own merits for the 9 shirt.
If they were your top two, there’s an interesting side debate as to how you want Scotland to close games out (steady or frenetic) which might dictate who starts (as might the question of captaincy, see below).
After Greig and George, Ali Price, Henry Pyrgos and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne are all sitting at around the same level. Pyrgos has come on to a game since moving to Edinburgh, but didn’t go so well against Montpellier this weekend and that may have gone against him. If Townsend picks three as usual, the last pick will most likely be Ali Price which would mean Hidalgo-Clyne drops out from the summer squad.
Who is the captain?
Another decision where Le Petit General will come into consideration is that of the captaincy.
Stuart McInally did well in the summer and is currently nailed on to start at hooker if fit – something you could argue Laidlaw is not given Horne’s form, although he’d probably be favourite to play the big games against South Africa and Argentina and will definitely be in the squad for the three home games.
John Barclay has been a successful leader for Toony but he is out injured until the new year so you could say that – at least until then – the captaincy is up for grabs. It’s pretty unlikely it will be someone outside those two or Barclay who will lead the side into the World Cup next year, so vice-captaincy types like Hoggy or Jonny Gray will most probably remain that way.
If you want to build a leadership group capable of coping with injuries in the confines of a World Cup squad you’d look to McInally to get more experience in the role. Let Greig concentrate on game management and slotting the goals.
Or do you give Greig the armband and let him keep it all through next year for continuity? There is also the possibility he may retire from international rugby following the World Cup (he’ll be 34).
I’d pick McInally, but don’t be surprised to see wee Greig as Townsend’s choice come tomorrow lunchtime.