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Rory’s World Cup Squad v3.0: the forwards

Ryan Wilson
Ryan Wilson at Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow. pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

After our earlier revision of the group of backs that Gregor Townsend might take to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in his squad, attention turns now to the Scottish pack, which has been a far less settled unit this year. Matters are complicated further by injuries to several key figures and as I’m proceeding on a “if we picked it today” basis that causes a few headaches…


We don’t yet know the first choices in either position here.

Gordon Reid filled the jersey well during the Six Nations earlier in the year but he had one run out in the autumn. A rejuvenated Allan Dell was the liveliest performer although the scrum is undeniably not his strongest area. Until his recent ban, Alex Allan was in pretty decent form for Glasgow (and is very highly rated on the RugbyPass Index!) although most of his Glasgow appearances have been from the bench in the considerable shadow of the (not-yet-qualified) Oli Kebble.

It’s a similar story at Edinburgh with a South African project player rapidly winning favour with the coach. It means both Jamie Bhatti and Rory Sutherland are now a little off international pace while the hero of November 2017, Darryl Marfo, has barely been seen in Edinburgh, making his first appearance in some time during the defeat to Munster recently.

Reid’s issue is currently the level at which he plays his club rugby (as is Marfo’s); Allan’s is game time. But we need one of them to step up to challenge Dell or it’s going to be nail-biting at scrum time unless Danny Wilson can work wonders with Dell’s technique.

Selected: Allan Dell, Gordon Reid, Alex Allan
Unlucky to miss out: Jamie Bhatti, Rory Sutherland

On the other side of the scrum the choices are a little better, but still without a front runner. WP Nel going a little backwards and Berghan coming a little forwards make them the first two choices but it is harder to pick a starter these days.

Injury means we need to leave out Zander Fagerson in this version but he should definitely be back in straight away come the spring. For now, Murray McCallum gets the nod for versatility as much as anything else but D’Arcy Rae could be a bolter if he keeps improving for Glasgow.

Selected: Simon Berghan, Willem Nel, Murray McCallum 
Unlucky to miss out: Zander Fagerson (inj), Jon Welsh, D’Arcy Rae


Writing the draft of this a week ago it was pretty easy, but since then both Fraser Brown and George Turner have picked up injuries and I find myself having to turn to experience just to get enough bodies on the plane. That’s right, we’re turning back the clock to the glory years and taking Ross Ford alongside Stuart McInally, who is a candidate for skipper too.

All being well with the world, Brown should be back midway through the Six Nations – it’s getting close, people – and is a certainty to travel come next autumn. Assuming the injury that took him out of the Glasgow win over Lyon is not too serious, Turner is also really likely to battle it out with Ford for that 3rd spot, as it may come a little soon for the promising Grant Stewart. For this version we’re going for Leicester Tiger’s Jake Kerr who is fit and playing.

Selected: Stuart McInally, Ross Ford, Jake Kerr
Unlucky to miss out: Fraser Brown (inj), George Turner (inj)


The continuing absence of Richie Gray for club and country makes picking this four pretty simple. Sam Skinner did enough in the autumn to suggest he should get a chance in the spring, although Tim Swinson is fit again and we know Toony is a fan.

There are young locks like Scott Cummings and Callum Hunter-Hill coming through but they are short on opportunities until the next international window lifts everyone back out of their path.

In terms of depth, I am hopeful that this selection will be trickier in March, when it may well come down to a choice between Toolis and Gilchrist for that fourth place.

Selected: Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner, Ben Toolis
Unlucky to miss out: Richie Gray (inj), Scott Cummings, Tim Swinson


Ouch, picking this one hurts. Can we agree though that the only real standout is Hamish Watson? There are a pile of players all playing at about the same level just below without consistently hitting the heights we are keen to see, and we need some star-making performances in the Six Nations to separate them out. It is still quite easy to see a collection of the usual suspects (Barclay, Wilson, Denton) making up most of the selection next year based on experience.

Purely on recent months though, John Barclay is out although we know he’ll be back as soon as he’s fit, as is Dave Denton who is less certain of his place. Jamie Ritchie would have earned a spot for some excellent work in November but is listed injured as of last weekend, dammit. Magnus Bradbury is unlucky that injury spoiled his chance to display some fine club form. Next year, Ritchie might struggle if everyone is fit purely as with Hardie and Watson they are well served for 7s and Six-ey 7s and there might be a need to find more Six-ey 8s. Luke Hamilton’s form has been mixed since pitching up at Edinburgh, but put in a lot of work at the weekend.

Adam Ashe is one player who is finally back fit and looking like he could yet be in the mix if recent Glasgow performances are anything to go by but it is hard to see Toony taking him ahead of, say, Wilson who has experience on his side.

John Hardie is playing well for Newcastle, so he’s close to going too as an experienced international operator. Compared to the Irish units they will face on September 22nd, my chosen selection does look a little underpowered, though I’m not sure what the answer is – Bradbury and Barclay being fit? Growth hormones?

Even with a few players injured it is a difficult group to select. It would be nice if a few more of them looked like world beaters though…

Selected: Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Adam Ashe, John Hardie, Matt Fagerson
Unlucky to miss out: John Barclay (inj), Magnus Bradbury (inj), Blade Thomson (inj), Jamie Ritchie (inj), Luke Hamilton, Gary Graham

So here is my complete squad based on who’s available following Autumn and European action:

Forwards (18):  Allan Dell, Gordon Reid, Alex Allan; Simon Berghan, Willem Nel, Murray McCallum; Stuart McInally, Ross Ford, Jake Kerr; Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner, Ben Toolis; Matt Fagerson, Hamish Watson, John Hardie, Ryan Wilson, Adam Ashe.

Backs (14): George Horne, Ali Price, Greig Laidlaw; Finn Russell, Adam Hastings; Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Huw Jones, Chris Harris; Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Blair Kinghorn, Byron McGuigan, Stuart Hogg.

And just in case, here is who I would take if everyone was fit and all (or some of) my hopes and dreams come true:

Forwards (18):  Allan Dell, Jamie Bhatti, Alex Allan; Simon Berghan, Willem Nel, Zander Fagerson; Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown, George Turner; Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner, Richie Gray; John Barclay, Hamish Watson, John Hardie, Magnus Bradbury, Blade Thomson.

Backs (14): George Horne, Ali Price, Greig Laidlaw; Finn Russell, Adam Hastings; Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Huw Jones, Pete Horne; Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham, Stuart Hogg.

As usual I am sure there will be healthy debate below.

I’ll take another look at the whole squad following the Six Nations to see who’s in, and who is out after that.

By then things will be close to the wire indeed.

40 Responses

  1. Pretty good article which mentions all the right names and can’t really disagree with your final selections.

    Would like to see one of Bhatti or Sutherland back in the frame if they can get some game time at club level first! Also think Rae has been playing very, very well this season and would certainly be ahead of McCallum as it stands. Pack I’d pick if we had to play tomorrow though taking account of injuries you’ve listed above:


    Berghan or Nel would probably play over Rae but I like how he has played this season, I think he’s been a cornerstone of the improved forward play and scrum at the Warriors. Wilson at 6 would probably be more balanced as well but I do miss seeing human missile Hardie knocking opposition players back.

  2. Just curious but why do you have Darcy Graham in the list of ideal backs but not the available ones when he’s fit and playing well?

    I like most of your picks here although the majority are dictated by injury. One I can’t really understand though is Kerr at hooker. Other than the fact that he’s Scottish and not injured, I can’t see any justification for picking him based on watching Leicester the last two weeks. One positive I guess is that while Polota-Nau was glaringly awful, Kerr managed to remain invisible.

    That first choice back-row selection could compete with anyone and I’d feel much better about our chances if we could get them fit and firing. Watson v Hardie was a great match-up at the weekend and I’d loved them to both keep playing well and pressurising the other. It’s going to be interesting to see where Ryan Wilson fits in over the next year as well with Ashe and Fagerson playing better than him for Glasgow and Rennie rewarding them with starts, wonder if Townsend will follow suit..

  3. What’s the point in picking a RWC squad and then excluding players that are out for a couple of weeks with a knock?

    1. I thought that when it was mentioned on the podcast. A bit like complicating the rating systems.

    2. Because it makes you look a depth and realistic scenarios that will happen at the world cup, a fun twist imo.

  4. I know he’s injured so can’t make the list, based upon the not injured criteria, but I think Cameron Fenton could possibly come into the reckoning. He’s ahead of Ford (when fit) at Edinburgh and is learning his role from Cockers. We’ve seen how McInally has come on since Cockers came in, and when Fenton has played he’s looked an able deputy for McInally. Don’t get me wrong, for Scotland, if everyone is fit then McInally and Brown are 1 &2, and Turner is/was (pre injury) showing form to suggest he could be 3rd choice. But if any of them get injured then Fenton could sneak into the mix.

    Also (and again I know injured so can’t be included) Lewis Carmichael could be in the pot, due to being able to cover lock and BR. Got a couple of games on the summer tour and didn’t look out of place. He needs to get over his head injury first though and get into the Edinburgh team again, but if he can do those things, then he’s got a chance of being in or around the ‘Toonbola’.

    1. Personally I thought that Carmichael could be the solution to our lack of power and line out ability in the back row, whilst providing the ability to cover second row. Now he’ll be competing with Blade Thomson and Sam Skinner for that role.

  5. Back row really is a fiendishly tough call, and I agree it is because we lack really outstanding candidates across the three positions.

    Watson – nailed on.
    Barclay – nailed on.
    Wilson – previously nailed on but coming under pressure and some of the bolters would presumably be at his expense.
    Matt Fagerson – strong chance of squad place.
    Jamie Ritchie – strong chance of squad place.
    Magnus Bradbury – outside bet for squad.
    John Hardie – outside bet for squad.
    Adam Ashe – outside bet for squad.
    Blade Thompson – bolter.
    Gary Graham – long shot at best.
    Luke Hamilton – long shot at best.
    David Denton – time has passed.
    Josh Strauss – time has passed.

    If we assume Barclay, Watson and Wilson will all go as senior players the trick is then getting the right balance among the rest.

    I think Matt Fagerson has been outstanding this season and Jamie Ritchie is close but including both would leave the squad short of ball carriers. So it is probably one of them, or John Hardie as an outside bet. With Barclay in the squad I don’t think there necessarily needs to be another specialist 7 and I think Ritchie is more of an auxiliary 7 anyway.

    The remaining place should go to another ball carrier, with Magnus Bradbury possibly with a nose in front before his injury, Adam Ashe making a late claim for inclusion and Blade Thompson as the wildcard who needs an opportunity to prove his reputation will translate to the test game. I expect one of these three to make the plane.

    That perhaps means the squad leans towards 6/8s rather than 7s but almost all the players except Watson are fairly flexible. The only game in the group stages we play without our strongest side is likely to be Russia and we can easily get away with Fagerson or indeed Wilson at 7 there.

    6. Barclay
    7. Watson
    8. Wilson
    Squad – Blade Thompson (but I’m going on reputation here)
    Squad – Matt Fagerson

    On speed-dial in case of injuries: Jamie Ritchie, John Hardie, Magnus Bradbury.

    1. Hardie just needs to stand up and breath for some to think he’s still in with a chance of the squad.

      You’ve clearly not been watching Ashe this season.

      1. Yes, well we all have our favourites. Who do you think will make the RWC squad then?

        Ashe’s recent form has been very good indeed but it is just a fact that he is only on the fringes of the Scotland squad and didn’t even make the initial 40-man squad for the AIs. David Denton was selected ahead of him FFS. Not only that but after injuries hit the squad he was called up but not selected, whilst Josh Strauss was (who fluffed his lines IMO).

        Ashe needs to keep his form up and avoid injury to get a chance, and he then needs to carry that form onto the test scene. His rivals are currently injured so he might get a chance in the 6N but he is still only an outside bet if everyone is fit.

        I’ve said Hardie is an outside bet too but he is still a quality player. I can only see him going if Watson and possibly Ritchie are injured – I don’t think there is space in the squad for him and Watson.

    2. Hardie really is not an outside bet – he’s back playing premiership. Bet if he makes the six nations squad, he’ll go to the world cup. Time again he’s played himself back into contention. Verne Cotter is no idiot. I think on his day he probably has the edge on Hamish Watson. Problem is, our two best players in the pack, you can’t pick together.

  6. Jake Kerr is a player I’d love to see Edinburgh sign one day as Ross Ford’s replacement. Highly rated at Leicester, particularly as a line out thrower, the Achilles heel of our current crop of hookers, it would seem.

    Its a shame that the two best loose head props in Scottish rugby are Schoeman and Kebble but at least they’ll be there for 2023, one hopes.

    Otherwise, all decent players but not with the collective power and technique to dominate a side that wants to close us down (Ireland, Wales, England etc.)

    The back row composition will be fascinating.

    1. Did you watch the Tigers v Racing match? Kerr had at least 2 missthrows – he’s no better than any of the backup hookers we have in Scotland.

      He’s third choice at an awful Leicester.

      1. Currently third choice behind a British and Irish Lion and an Australian international with dozens of caps.

        Highly rated at Leicester, per Ben Kay…but then, you probably know more than a World Cup winner, I’m guessing.

      2. Tom Youngs is not a good international hooker. He’s pretty good at club level and is clearly very passionate, but recent B&IL selections merely demonstrate that you passed Gatland’s complex selection test, which largely centerec around whether he already had a token Scot in the squad…

  7. Is there still room for some bolters? You would have to say yes as we’ve no idea who will be long term injured come the end of the season. I guess the two most likely are Blade Thompson at 8 and Sam Johnson at 12. Ideally you’d like to test any uncapped bolters as soon as possible (ie Italy at home if they are back in time)

    You are also hoping that the players coming back from injury can quickly regain their form. That especially goes for the forwards, ie Barclay, Z Fagerson, R Gray, F Brown.

    1. As the saying goes, form is temporary but class is permanent. Barclay and Richie Gray fall into that category and, to a lesser extent, Fagerson and Brown.
      If they’re fit, I would pick these for over their “up-and-coming” counterparts. Especially for a World Cup, where experience is paramount.

    1. He’s basically a specialist 7 though (not convinced by him at 6). If we only have 5 back row in the squad can we afford to take two specialists 7s, when he won’t cover the bench?

      I think it is him or Watson and Watson wins hands down.

  8. This is a bit more debatable.

    Why are we taking a squad of 32 is my 1st question, has there been a change to the previously 31 man squads?

    5 Props
    LH – Dell & Bhatti for me (assuming he can get back in the Glasgow team) otherwise Allan
    TH – Nel, Fagerson & McCallum (only as he can cover both sides)

    3 Hookers
    Brown, McInally & Turner

    4 Lock
    Skinner, J Gray, R Gray & Gilchrist

    5 Back Row

    6 – Barclay, Ritchie (both can cover 7 & 8)
    7 – Watson
    8 – Ashe, Bradbury

    This obviously assumes everyone is fit at the time of selection.

    For me, Wilson is not and rarely has been an international player. Hardie is playing well but might still be out of touch with Toonie.

    Fagerson is not as good as Bradbury but thats my opinion, Ashe is better than both of them on current form.

    Blade Thomson could be our Brad Shields (thats not praise) so needs to earn his slot on the plane.
    Gary Graham is an outside bet if he can get some game time during the 6N.

    1. To me that is not a world cup winning pack.

      LH Props: Dell, Marfo, Mcallum
      Hookers: Brown, Mcinally, Turner
      TH Props:Fagerson,Berghan
      Lock: R.Gray, Skinner, Gilchrist
      BR: Bradbury, Watson, Thomson, Hardie, Barclay.

      1. Dell
      2. Brown
      3. Fagerson
      4. R.Gray
      5. Skinner
      6. Bradbury
      7. Watson
      8. Barclay

      16. Mcinally
      17. Marfo
      18. Berghan
      19. Gilchrist
      20. Thomson

      1. Eh. I’m not aware it’s a criminal offence. Though I’m no detective so cannot be sure.

        I question it because he’s getting no game time and it would be foolish to select someone with very little experience when we have other more suitable options.

      2. Neil, to be honest, you’ve picked 3 different players and now we’ll win the world cup because of it. Oh and you’ve only picked 16 forwards.

        Everyone has there opinion and thats fine. Can I ask? What have you seen from Blade Thomson that makes him an international standout that deserves to go to the RWC before Ritchie who was outstading in the AI’s, or are you picking him on the basis that he is a Kiwi that is available to us so he must be better than what we have already?

        I can see some logic in not taking Nel as he is not at his best and looked good against a poor Newcastle front row, if Nel doesn’t start he’s not worth having in the 23 as he makes little impact from the bench. Fagerson & Berghan do that better. My only concern with Berghan is he gives away too many penalties, both in the scrum and loose, so for that I picked Nel ahead of him.

        Also, if Marfo can’t make the premiership team of the week playing for Boroughmuir, as per The Offside Line, how can he possibly be considered for the RWC? Are you Darryl Marfo?

        I know what you mean about Wilson, Toonie really rates him and he does work hard. I just think his time is up due to the development of the other back row options now available. I personally wouldn’t even have him on the standby list but he’ll probably end up a VC within the squad.

      3. Rosco he was getting no gametime before he got selected last year also and look what happened. I believe he has more impact of the bench that the other options with the only argument for Allan. if better options deliver on the big stage i have no issue dropping Marfo completely but no one has stepped up and claimed the jersey besides Dell.

        And yes toonie advisor 3 changes can make a big difference to a pack of 8

        Nothing wrong with having 16 forwards it gives us more options on how use our stronger depth in the backline.

        On thomson he offers a balanced skillset and is first choice in a strong scarlets squad i think he links up well with our backs, and he can play second row which gives him the edge for me over Ritchie who will very good is still raw.

      4. Neil do you think Marfo could do a job at inside centre for us as a like for like replacement of Dunbar? He’s got the turnover threat and bulk and wouldn’t be a risk at scrumtime in the backs.

      5. Scrummo i am mature enough to not take the bait lets not try to bring down the quality of the blog this is not football or a bbc forum.

        My feelings about Marfo will stay the same, if you dont agree thats fine it’s ok to have a wrong opinion.

      6. I’ll be surprised if Marfo ever plays for Scotland again Neil. I think he’ll be lucky to play much for Edinburgh outside of the 6N window as well just look at his career to date. Bhatti is probably our best shout other than Dell until Kebble qualifies.

    2. I just can’t see Toonie not picking Wilson. After he was thoroughly outclassed by two Italian novices in Rome I really don’t have much confidence in him but I just can’t see him not going.

      Bradbury’s injury came at an awful time for him. Toonie has expressed concerns about his work rate and the AIs should have been a chance to put them to bed. Instead Ritchie and Fagerson got a chance to show they could cut it, whilst Bradbury hasn’t even been able to prove form ahead of the 6N yet. I think he’ll struggle to make the squad for those reasons unless he has an absolutely storming end to the season. I do rate him highly though and his ball-carrying is a huge weapon.

  9. Here’s my first XV comprised of only recently injured Daryl Marfos: 1. Marfo, 2. Marfo, 3. Marfo, 4. Marfo, 5. Marfo, 6. Marfo, 7. Marfo, 8. Marfo, 9. Marfo, 10, Marfo, 11. Marfo, 12. Marfo, 13, Marfo, 14. Marfo, 15. Marfo.

  10. I still think we have a problem at loosehead and need heft in the back row. What is it about not learning from your mistakes, history repeating itself. Despite try try trying again, Scotland are demolished in the scrum year on year on year on year.

    My ‘dream’ match day 23 for Ireland (assuming fit and on form):
    1. Sutherland, 2. McInally, 3. Nel, 4. Gray, 5. Gray, 6. Barclay, 7. Hardie, 8. Ashe, 9. Horne, 10. Russell, 11. Maitland, 12. Dunbar, 13. Jones, 14. Seymour, 15. Hogg.
    16. Bhatti, 17. Brown, 18. Berghan, 19. Skinner, 20. Fagerson, 21. Laidlaw, 22. Taylor, 23. Kinghorn.
    Most unlucky to miss out on match day 23 for the Ireland game: Reid, Fagerson, Toolis, Watson, Ritchie, Wilson, Denton, Price, Hastings, Horne.
    Bolters (who could actually start): Marfo, Bradbury, Thomson, Johnson, Scott, Bennett, Graham.

  11. Just trying to think back four years (god, was it really that long ago..?) I think there was a long training period when the squad was together, and a couple of guys qualified during it – Strauss was one, was Nel the other? Anyway, the point is, I reckon there are opportunities right up until the squad is announced for bolters. Especially the older ones with a bit of experience. If someone like Thomson fits in, I see no reason why he can’t make the RWC squad.

    I also think we’re all still a bit obsessed with ball carriers in the back row. Depending on the opposition and how the breakdown is refereed, then Barclay and Watson have to start, for me. Then, hopefully, we can hang on to our own ball and slow the opposition’s. There are some big boys in the front five like McInally, R.Grey, etc, that can and will need to make some hard yards.

    1. Sounds like Ritchie Gray is back in full training and may play Jan 27th. Fingers crossed he can stay healthy!

  12. If we need more back-row heft, why not go for the “4 Hookers of the Apocalypse”? Play Turner at 2, Brown at 6 and McInally at 8 (with Watson at 7) and Ford covering 2 on the bench? Throwing in can be handled by whoever is doing it best (and, given that backrows often hang out on the wing (if playing the now-traditional 1-3-3-1) it raises the possibility of some fun trick quick lineouts, too…). Could even play Blade Thomson and Sam Skinner in the second row to ensure there’s enough atheleticism.

    (This theory started ironically but I’ve now half-convinced myself…)

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