Picking a Six Nations training squad is a lot easier than my previous attempts at a World Cup squad with a bit more leeway over numbers. However given recent player retirements and some new coaching staff, the sense is that this is something of a fresh start post World Cup, which means it’s still tricky to see where Townsend is going. Given how 2019 went, can he even afford to experiment?
Based on last years 22/17 split, I’d go with this for our group:
Allan Dell, Jamie Bhatti,
Gordon Reid Rory Sutherland
Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown, George Turner
WP Nel, Zander Fagerson, Simon Berghan
Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Scott Cummings, Sam Skinner, Ben Toolis
Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Blade Thomson, Ryan Wilson, Matt Fagerson, Luke Crosbie
Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn
Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham, Byron McGuigan, Kyle Steyn
Matt Scott, Rory Hutchinson, Huw Jones, Chris Harris, Mark Bennett, Sam Johnson
Finn Russell, Adam Hastings
Ali Price, George Horne, Henry Pyrgos
Loosehead: Allan Dell, Jamie Bhatti, Rory Sutherland*
The Question: who the hell to pick.
Gordon Reid is technically a Super 6 player (though training with Glasgow) and Allan Dell and Jamie Bhatti are short of game time, Bhatti in particular is like Alex Allan, stuck behind an in form, not yet qualified on residency South African. It’s all a bit of a worry.
Dell has only played 7 games for basement dwellers London Irish, and only two of them as starts. Rory Sutherland’s recent return to fitness could be key, even if he was last capped in 2016.
Are there any Scots qualified looseheads out there we don’t know about? Could Nathan McBeth do a Huw Jones and just pop up from South Africa for the tournament? Unlikely with Super Rugby on the horizon.
Hooker: McInally, Brown, Turner
The Question: could Brown be the skipper?
Not too much to debate here in terms of the selection, but with McInally out injured Brown is likely to start on current form. Would he then have to be the captain? Glasgow’s Grant Stewart would be next choice for a slot if any injuries occur.
Tighthead: Nel, Fagerson, Berghan
The Question: is Zander Fagerson ready to take the big step up?
The group of three picks itself, but question marks still remain over when (not if) Zander will make the tighthead shirt his own. Showings in the loose for Glasgow have been hugely impressive of late and Zandbags kept to a healthy minimum, but the hope is that between the tutelage of Petrus du Plessis at Glasgow and Peter de Villiers at national level they can unlock his potential to dominate the set-piece instead of conceding penalties. Wasps Jack Owlett (who can cover both sides of the scrum) is creeping on to the radar too.
Second row: Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Scott Cummings, Sam Skinner, Ben Toolis
The Question: might we see a bolter here?
A selection perhaps made easier by Richie Gray’s current absence from playing for Toulouse (with a concussion). Gloucester’s Alex Craig has been starting a lot of their big European games lately – but has he done enough to usurp squad regular Ben Toolis? With Sam Skinner likely to be rusty in the extreme after a long injury layoff, meaning pressure on likely starters GG/JG/SC, I think it might be too soon for Craig’s first call up, or say Edinburgh’s Lewis Carmichael. Either could well feature in the summer. Stick with what we know in the boiler room – unless Toony calls up Craig too, and ditches one from the back row.
Back row: Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Blade Thomson, Matt Fagerson, Luke Crosbie, Ryan Wilson
The Question: is there still a place for Ryan Wilson?
Even with John Barclay retiring there is still some decent depth in the back row (as long as you aren’t looking for big carrying Number 8s). On form Ritchie and Bradbury will be in the mix while Watson probably represents the voice of experience. That’s why Wilson is in, although I’d expect him to get less game time now Bradbury and Ritchie are settled at this level. Quite simply, the squad has lost a lot of experience and he’s needed for that reason if no other.
Sam Skinner may well make an appearance in the back row during the tournament if he is fit. There’s an argument to take him as a 6(ish) plus another lock, but Luke Crosbie has earned his call up ahead of Gary Graham who suffers from Newcastle’s relegation. Other possibilities for a position here include Luke Hamilton (Bristol), Cornell du Preez (Worcester) or Nick Haining (Edinburgh) all of whom offer a little more bulk at the back.
Scrum-half: Ali Price, George Horne, Henry Pyrgos
The Question: who is the third choice 9?
Now that Greig has retired, the top two are clear with Horne currently edging selection for Glasgow but Price a more familiar dance partner for Finn Russell. The big question is who gets the nod as a third scrum-half. The best bet for the long term would probably be one of the young pretenders (Shiel or even Dobie) on a learning brief, safe in the knowledge that Henry Pyrgos would get a call-up if there was an injury during a game. But you don’t want your backup too undercooked in either sense. Sorry Cockers.
Standoff: Finn Russell, Adam Hastings
The Question: can Finn kick the goals?
An easy selection with both men in fine form. The question mark over this position then is one of goal-kicking responsibilities. Finn doesn’t have them for Racing, and seems to fare better for Scotland without them. George Horne has a goal-kicking pedigree and Stuart Hogg has been known to have the odd pop. I think a new (slightly) mature Finn is going to have to shoulder this responsibility.
Centres: Matt Scott, Rory Hutchinson, Huw Jones, Chris Harris, Mark Bennett, Sam Johnson
The Question: who do you leave out?
The answer to the question could well be Townsend stalwart Pete Horne, who has only played 5 games this season, and only one start at 12.
This is the toughest area but we will have to leave out some quality. It gets harder when we consider it by position. A lot of our in-form players are 13s and we can’t take them all and be left without anyone to play 12:
12s: Scott, Johnson, Horne, Lang
13s: Harris, Bennett, Jones
Either: Hutchinson, D Taylor
First are the ones who should definitely be in: Rory Hutchinson, Matt Scott and Huw Jones. Chris Harris is also holding down the 13 shirt for Gloucester who are flying. He’s had his doubters in the past but seems to be backing it up since the move to Kingsholm. Scott and Mark Bennett are both in excellent form but might Toony only pick one of the Edinburgh combo? For me it would have to be Scott who offers a different approach and looks in the form of his life this season.
That leaves two from Johnson, Bennett, Taylor and the rest. Even with 6 slots available based on 2019’s squad, there are a lot of excellent 13s to pick and the choice at 12 might be determined by Steve Tandy’s approach to the midfield defence. Matt Taylor/Vern Cotter tended to favour a defender at 12 (Dunbar) with a creative 13 (Jones, Bennett), whereas Toony seems to have swapped that axis around before the most recent failed experiment of two defensive types in the World Cup. Duncan Taylor could miss out this time although like Harris, he’s been making regular appearances in a very competitive Saracens squad and forgotten man James Lang is also going well at Quins. Too soon also for Edinburgh’s George Taylor who has leapt forward this season.
Wings: Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham, Byron McGuigan, Kyle Steyn
The Question: do we have enough wings coming through?
Maitland and Graham are the standout candidates and Kinghorn will likely feature here in matches, but there is a bit of a drop in quality after that. Kyle Steyn is good going forward but may not even really be a wing. Could we see a centre who could cover there added instead? With Edinburgh’s “Visser Mk II” Duhan Van Der Merwe not qualified until the summer, perhaps Tommy Seymour retired a tournament too soon.
Full-back: Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn
The Question: should Hogg be captain?
Another easy selection, with no other candidates to speak of. Kinghorn continues to mature and Townsend is likely to use him off the bench while Hoggy looks to have recovered from the World Cup with sparkling form at Exeter – though he’s perhaps not as rapid as he used to be.
Captaincy is also an issue, with Hogg, Russell and Watson possibly the only players certain to play every game if fit and all that is left of the leadership group. I’d rather Hogg rediscovered his attacking mojo, make Brown and McInally joint captains then see who starts.
Possible Scotland team to face Ireland: Hogg, D Graham, Hutchinson, Scott, Maitland, Russell, Horne; Dell, Brown (capt), Fagerson, J Gray, Cummings, Ritchie, Watson, Thomson.
Replacements: McInally, Reid, Nel, Skinner, Bradbury, Price, Hastings, Kinghorn.
Toony changes: Toony might ditch another back row to bring in another lock for experience, using Skinner in a dual role as he has before. The midfield group might feature a few more favourites like Horne for Bennett or possibly Taylor for Scott. But I’m hoping for a slightly more ruthless selection based on form. There could even be a bolter in the front row like Owlett. Hopefully someone we’ve never heard of, I like surprises…
The Scotland squad for the 2020 Six Nations will be announced tomorrow.
You can see Scotland’s 2019 Six Nations squad here.
* in the initial version of this article posted I picked Gordon Reid, but having researched Rory Sutherland’s game time recently (he wasn’t as injured as I thought, thanks for nothing Jamie Lyall) think he’s a better shout.