With less than two weeks to go before the 6 Nations kicks off Scotland’s injury list means head coach Gregor Townsend has some issues to deal with. Strength in depth has improved in recent years but niggling doubts remain that losing players disproportionately impacts the dark blues compared to, say, Ireland.
With so many players having been involved with the national side over the last 18 months or so it can be tough to try and understand just what effect enforced absences may have. What better way to visualise this to try and get a handle on the issues than with a Depth Chart?
Gregor Townsend has selected 37 backs in his squads since he took over ahead of the Summer 2017 tour. That includes 7 men who have yet to play a game under the head coach. Two of those players are in the mix for the Six Nations. Here is the current injury profile (click for larger version):
Things don’t look too bad here. The only position that might give the selectors sleepless nights is inside centre. Given Duncan Taylor’s long-term absence, the national side have learned how to cope without the man from Saracens (SuperDunc hasn’t played for Scotland since going off injured against Fiji in Suva back in June 2017).
Peter Horne has missed Glasgow’s last four games, but his inclusion in the initial panel suggests he’s expected to recover in time for the opening rounds. If he doesn’t it could well be down to one of two uncapped players to fill the playmaker role. Sam Johnson would probably already have made his debut in the Autumn but for an injury. Chris Dean has been in superb form for Edinburgh.
Toony may not want to leave inexperienced players potentially exposed in a must-win game for Scotland though. His next option would be to move away from a distributor. That would mean slotting in the hugely experienced – and much more direct – Alex Dunbar. Eck is short of game time though with only one start for Glasgow since the November Tests – and he wasn’t selected in the original squad.
Toony has selected 47 forwards in his squads over the last 18 months or so. That includes 13 men who have yet to play a game under the head coach. 8 of those players are in the mix for the Six Nations. Here is the current injury profile (click for larger version):
Issues in the forwards run a little deeper although the front row problems should be manageable. If the first choice trio can make it through the Italy and Ireland games relatively unscathed they should hopefully find reinforcements waiting by Round 3. Fraser Brown, George Turner and Zander Fagerson are all slated to return to action in time to be options away to France but will need to get up to speed quickly.
Like Duncan Taylor in the backs, Richie Gray’s absence in the pack has been so persistent that Scotland have learned to cope without the giant lock who was once a mainstay of the team. 27 minutes against Italy last year is Richie’s entire involvement in test rugby in very nearly two full years. Even if little brother Jonny also fails to make the starting gate at Murrayfield, Gregor Townsend can still call on a quartet of in-form locks. The European outings of Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis in particular have shown they should fear no-one in the championship.
The back row is where the biggest cause for concern lies. Toony’s preferred breakaway trio of Barclay, Watson and Wilson could all be missing, with Barclay definitely out for the whole tournament. With another 4/5 injuries to genuine contenders for places, in the absence of the top dogs Scotland’s depth will be sorely tested. Having said that there would be times in days gone by when Scotland fans would have bitten your hand off for a unit that comprised players of the quality of Jamie Ritchie, John Hardie or Josh Strauss.
So how serious is it?
In the early rounds of the 6 Nations things may be a wee bit tight at hooker and inside centre – but there are at least some fresh troops on the horizon in these positions. It’s in the back row that injuries will have the most impact. The style of play around the breakdown will probably need to be adapted to reflect the resources available. That’s not necessarily a bad thing with RWC 2019 on the horizon. Blooding a couple of large units like Gary Graham and Luke Crosbie may provide Gregor Townsend with a way to change up a game ahead of some physical encounters in Japan.
Short-term pain could lead to long-term gain for Toony and his troops.