GREGOR TOWNSEND named a 42-man Scotland training squad this morning as focus begins to zoom in on the World Cup in Japan, which kicks off for in just over four months time.
Before that, there is a long summer of training to get through plus four warm-up matches to play against France at the Allianz Stadium in Nice on 17th August, France again at Murrayfield on 24th August, Georgia in the Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi on 31st August and Georgia again at Murrayfield on 6th September.
A lot of water still needs to pass under the bridge, but already things are beginning to get serious.
At least two more squad members will be added to the 42 named today.
Gregor Townsend [GT]: “It’s an outside back and a forward, likely to be a second-row. We want to leave that until the end of the season. We’re announcing the squad with some players still due to play in huge games in their respective leagues, and we want to make that decision having seen these players perform at that level, plus there are players still in the equation who might not get the opportunity to play because they are out of contention because of injury or selection – in those two areas we have a lot of quality still to make that final decision.”
Richie Gray appears to be the front-runner for that extra second-row slot if he gets through to the end of his club season without any more injury set-backs, but he faces tough competition.
GT: “Toulouse are going really well in France, they could play four more games, and Richie has that opportunity like the other guys in his position to make sure he’s the one we select at the end of the season.
“We still want to see more from him. He has the opportunity over the next few weeks to show he can play that level, where the step up to Test level will be an easy one. Richie is in the mix for that final position alongside other second-rows who have been playing really well. Andrew Davidson who has had a great season at Newcastle and they’ve got one game remaining. Scott Cummings and Rob Harley have been playing really well for Glasgow, plus Tim Swinson was playing really well before his injury and we’re monitoring how he’s getting on. Those players are all in the mix for that final position.”
Duncan Taylor has a fighting chance of making it to Japan – but he still has a long way to go.
GT: “He trained with Saracens yesterday [Monday]. That was his first session with the team. He’s aiming to be back in full contact training within the next two or three weeks. We’ve kept in touch regularly with the Sarries medics and Duncan. He’s looking very good and ready to go. Players will get a bit of a rest at the end of the season, but Duncan will continue to do his rehab so that when he comes in to us he is ready to train fully.
“Obviously, he’s not played rugby since pre-season last summer, so we’ll need to challenge him during our training block. We will see how he is doing but we would certainly look to involve him in the first two games – because he could be a very important player for us.
“He’s someone who is held in high regard with ourselves – the coaching staff and his team-mates – but also his club. He hasn’t played that much for Scotland in the past two years but my first connection with him as a coach was on the summer tour two years ago when he was outstanding. He played at full-back against Italy, then in the following game against Australia he was superb at centre and moved to the wing in the second half, and he played centre again in the game against Fiji before coming off injured at half-time. So, we already know his quality, we’ve seen it close up and he provides the glue for what a backline can do because the work he does off the ball is so good.
“His defensive communication is strong, and he’s also a very good attacker. If the timing works out really well and he’s back to full-fitness then we have a player who we’ve not had for a couple of years who we would hope is in very good form – that would be a real bonus.
“He is the only player who has not played any rugby this season, but we know what a great worker he is and what a great player he is in attack and defence. If he is not able to produce that then it will be an easy decision not to include him in the final squad, but he will get opportunities in August and into September.”
Duncan Weir’s boat has sailed.
GT: “He has not fallen out of the picture entirely. We’ve selected two stand-offs primary and we know there are other players in our squad who can play at 10. Duncan was very close to the selection. He is playing the best rugby probably of his career. It shows that when you get to play regularly you can improve and play with confidence.
“I was down watching him at the weekend and he’s very close to the squad. He has shown he can play an accurate attacking game with a lot of touches on the ball, making good decisions. That’s pleasing for us but with the numbers we chose he is one of many people who have just missed out, not through form but just through the fact we’ve picked a smaller squad.”
Three uncapped players, but the time for experimentation is over.
GT: “During last summer’s tour we introduced a group of players to Test rugby for the first time, then during the Six Nations and the November Tests other players got their opportunities as well – and some, like Darcy Graham, really grabbed their chance.
“For Grant Stewart, who has been playing regularly for Glasgow and was involved in last year’s summer tour, this is just that next step up for him; Rory Hutchinson has been in brilliant form for his club over the last few weeks; and Blade Thompson was playing great rugby when he got injured the night before we played Wales – so these three players are very close to playing at Test level and deserve to be in our squad.
New boy Rory Hutchison could be a back-up option at stand-off as well as in the centre
GT: “I spoke to him a few weeks ago, initially to make contact and tell him we were really happy with his form and if he continued that he could make the World Cup training squad. I watched him the last two games, against Newcastle and Worcester, and the way he’s playing he’s a strong contender for the final 31. Centre is a very competitive position. I count eight centres who have played pro rugby for top clubs in the last couple of weeks – Stafford McDowall, Kyle Styen, Chris Dean, James Johnstone, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and James Lang – who have missed out. That shows you how highly we rate Rory and he does have a big opportunity these next few weeks.
“Peter [Horne] we know can play 10, he’s played 10 for Glasgow and he’s covered it for us, and Greig Laidlaw has played 10 for Clermont this year, so there’s two players who provide cover in the squad. So can Rory, he finished the game at the weekend, the last few minutes, playing 10. He was Scotland Under-20’s stand-off for a couple of seasons so he has the ability to move there during games, and also provide cover there.”
Grant Stewart’s contribution in the loose got him the nod as fourth hooker despite concerns about his set-piece.
GT: “That was another close decision. Only going with four hookers, it’s a bit like the decision on Duncan Weir. Jake has been unlucky to miss out. He’s played pretty regularly since the Six Nations, mainly off the bench but he’s contributed well. We just feel Grant has made some really big impacts in attack and defence for Glasgow and we can see with the training he’s going to get over the next few months, being in an international camp and environment, the other parts of his game that do have to improve around the set-piece will happen. But the impact he can make either side of the ball is something we’re excited about.”
Selecting Blade Thomson is not a gamble.
“He played for Scarlets in their last game against Dragons. They have one game remaining in the European play-off, we don’t know when the date is – middle of May or end of May depending what happens this week in the Champions Cup final – so at least he will have played two games before we meet up. That form he showed before getting injured is just a few months ago, so we hope he would be able to get back to that level fairly quickly.”
After a short break at the end of the season, things are about to get really serious.
“Obviously, we’ll have a lot of our training here and other parts of Scotland, which might not be the same conditions as Japan, but we have got some warm weather training planned. We’re going to Portugal for just over a week, we’ve got two Test matches in very warm conditions in Nice and Tbilisi, and a training camp in Nagasaki which will be very warm and should acclimatise us pretty well during the lead into the Irish game.
“Our game is based on energy, on work-rate, on continually putting pressure on the opposition through speed, and you need to be very fit to play that rugby. We’ve got to be fitter than any team we face in the World Cup and that starts when we get the players in camp in a few weeks’ time.
“These are experienced players. Every pre-season is hard for them, and they know that a pre-season camp going into a World Cup will challenge them more than they would encounter at club level. It’s something that they relish.”
His longer team future is unclear, but, for the time being, all roads lead to Japan for Gordon Reid.
“He’s committed to being in the squad. I know he’s not got a club for next season yet. That will take secondary precedence to his primary focus of making the final 31 for Japan.”
SCOTLAND TRAINING SQUAD
Backs (19): Darcy Graham (Edinburgh) 4 caps, Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors) 9, Chris Harris(Newcastle Falcons) 8, Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors) 11, Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) 67, George Horne (Glasgow Warriors) 4, Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors) 41, RWC 2015, Rory Hutchinson(Northampton Saints) uncapped, Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors) 21, Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors) 4, Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh) 11, Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne) 71, RWC 2015, Sean Maitland(Saracens) 40, RWC 2015, Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) 8, Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) 24, Henry Pyrgos (Edinburgh) 27, RWC 2015, Finn Russell (Racing 92) 44, RWC 2015, Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) 50, RWC 2015, Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 21.
Forwards (23): John Barclay (Edinburgh) 71, RWC 2007 and 2011, Simon Berghan (Edinburgh) 19, Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors) 13 , Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh) 7, Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) 42, RWC 2015, Allan Dell (Edinburgh) 22, Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) 3, Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) 19, Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh) 33, RWC 2015, Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons) 2 caps, Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) 51, RWC 2015, Stuart McInally (Edinburgh) 27, Willem Nel (Edinburgh) 29, RWC 2015, Gordon Reid (London Irish) 34, RWC 2015, Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh) 10, Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs) 5, Grant Stewart (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped, Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks) 22, RWC 2015, Blade Thomson (Scarlets) uncapped, Ben Toolis (Edinburgh) 18, George Turner(Glasgow Warriors) 5, Hamish Watson (Edinburgh) 25, Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) 43, RWC 2015.