THE fine-tuning to the Scotland squad announced yesterday may not have an impact on the matchday 23 to face Italy, but it does include a couple of moves of serious significance a little further down the line. For one thing, the selection of Stafford McDowall increases the Glasgow centre’s chances of making his Test debut in this Six Nations, while the return from injury of his Warriors team-mates Fraser Brown and Zander Fagerson should see the two front-row men back in harness sooner than expected.
The hooker and tighthead prop may be unlikely to be involved against the Italians on Saturday in the opening game of the Championship, but the fact that they are back at training has to be a substantial boost to the morale of a squad that has been badly affected by injury. So too is the clean bill of health given to Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson and Sam Johnson, the Glasgow trio who were a doubt last week, and because of whom Rob Harley, Matt Smith and Alex Dunbar were all called up. Those latter three players have all now been released back to the Warriors, although Smith injured a shoulder in his team’s league win over Ospreys on Friday so would have been unable to take a full part in training this week in any case.
“Stafford has done really well with Glasgow,” Scotland assistant coach Matt Taylor said of the Dumfries-born 20-year-old. “The Glasgow coaches think highly of him and he played well at the weekend, so it’s good to have him involved. He’s a physically imposing guy and I think he will develop nicely over the next couple of years.
“He’s kind of been brought in because he’s performed well and he’s in a good place for training. He’s an up-and-coming player and it’s good for him to be involved in the squad.”
Fagerson has been out since September following ankle surgery, while Brown has been sidelined with a knee injury. While Simon Berghan will provide adequate cover for Willem Nel at tighthead and thus reduce the need to rush Fagerson back, the imminent availability of Brown will come as a particular relief to the coaching team, who until yesterday only had one capped hooker – Stuart McInally – in their squad. The spot on the bench to provide back-up to the Edinburgh captain still seems likely to go to either Jake Kerr of Leicester or Grant Stewart of Glasgow this time out, with Brown having a greater chance of being named among the replacements to face Ireland a week later. Even so, Taylor did not rule out the hopes of either Brown or Fagerson returning this week.
“I wouldn’t probably want to start them,” he said. “I think with anyone coming back you’d want to start them maybe off the bench so you can control their minutes. If you pick anyone they’re not going to be in a position where you think they might re-injure themselves.
“I think Glasgow’s done an excellent job with the rehab and keeping them fit. We’re very conscious of players’ welfare and we only bring them in and participating if they’re ready to go. Their clubs, because it’s such a professional environment they’re really tested quite heavily around their injury before we involve them. Sometimes guys come in from long injury and only do part sessions, just being around the squad.
“Both those guys may be involved in training this week, but in the scheme of things we might sit down and see what we have, and say, ‘Right, maybe one more week of training might be better for them than putting them in this week’.
“They’re both excellent players, but it’s a balance. We don’t want to throw players in with a risk of injury and then you lose them for the whole tournament.”
In addition to McDowall, Glasgow winger Rory Hughes and Edinburgh scrum-half Henry Pyrgos were also called up yesterday, Hughes being cover for the injured Lee Jones while Pyrgos is there because George Horne is “struggling a little bit”, according to Taylor, with a shoulder injury. A prognosis is due soon on the knee injury sustained by Jones damaged in the 9-3 win over Ospreys
Richie Gray returned to action for Toulouse at the weekend and could be recalled to the national squad soon. Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw also played for his club, Clermont, coming off the bench for the final half-hour of their game.