By Stuart Bathgate
THE announcement of the Scotland team to play Argentina this weekend has been put back from Wednesday to Thursday – not because there are any uncertainties over injuries, apparently, but to give head coach Gregor Townsend to decide the best combinations from his remaining 28 players. At the same time, the postponement will also give those players more incentive to up their game in training at a time when thoughts of going home can begin to distract from the task in hand.
Scrum-half Charlie Shiel, for one, is unlikely to feature against the Pumas on Saturday. Having been called up as injury cover primarily to give him experience of life at this level, he will only be in the matchday 23 if either Sam Hidalgo-Clyne or George Horne picks up an injury. That leaves four more names to be excluded, and every remaining tourist will be desperate to ensure he is not among the quartet.
James Lang, for one, is itching to get another chance to represent Scotland, having made his debut against Canada after being the surprise selection in Gregor Townsend’s original tour party. Having played just a handful of games for Harlequins, the centre was off the radar as far as most observers of Scottish-qualified players were concerned, but as a former Scotland Under-18s cap he was always known to Townsend. Having featured at club level at 10, 12 and 15, Lang might be regarded as a utility back, but on this tour at least the head coach has had a very precise role in mind for the 23-year-old right from the outset: inside centre, with one or possibly two outings from the three games to show how well he can operate in tandem with a couple of different stand-offs.
Lang was taken off early in the second half against Canada after picking up a knock, but he has recovered from that now and, with Duncan Taylor having been ruled out because of his persistent back strain, is in the running for a place on Saturday. His hopes of selection may largely depend on whether Townsend opts to play Peter Horne at 10. Like Lang, Horne is best used one position out from the stand-off, but with Ruaridh Jackson having gone home and Adam Hastings having played against the USA as well as replacing Lang against Canada, the elder Horne brother appears to be the favourite to play at 10 against the Pumas.
Needless to say, Lang is itching for another taste of international rugby to round off a tour which began with a surprise phone call from Townsend himself. “I got a phone call from Gregor around March,” he recalled on Tuesday. “I was on holiday in Morocco and it was quite a surprise. He said they were looking at me and were liking what they were seeing. He said to keep up the good work and there could be an opportunity.
“I was getting quite a bit of game time with Quins, but more off the bench. I wasn’t really expecting to be selected but it was a nice surprise.
“Gregor spoke to me about my position. I’ve started all three, 10, 12, and 15, this year for Quins, but I think I’m here predominantly as a ball-playing 12, which is where I think I can really enhance my career, and I’m hopefully doing so.
“When they told me I was starting [against Canada], I was thrilled, excited – couldn’t really wait to get out there and play. And then on the day, Stuart Hogg presented me with my top in the changing room, and that was pretty class: obviously I’ve got loads of respect for him – he’s a world-class player.
“Singing the anthems was very special. My parents flew out as well to Edmonton and were in the crowd, so it was wicked to share that moment with them as well.”
Despite the surname, Lang’s father James is from Wales, while the player himself was born within a few miles of Twickenham. He owes his Scottish qualification to his mother’s father, who is from Hamilton. “My parents are very happy for me, and Scotland was definitely the right call. Playing with the under-18s gave me that shot and the way Gregor wants to play the game, that style, suits me very, very well.”
What would suit him even better is the chance to play 12 more frequently for Harlequins. Opportunities have been limited so far, and Lang is aware that, with regular first-team rugby being vital if his international career is to flourish, he may eventually have to move on. For the time being, however, with a new coach coming to the Twickenham Stoop, he is keen to stay put and fight his corner.
“At the minute I’m very happy at Quins. We’ve got a new head coach coming in, Paul Gustard, and I’ve heard very, very good things about him. I’m looking forward to going back, and it’s a clean slate for everyone.
“I’m looking forward to putting my hand up, training well and hopefully playing. Playing week in, week out is what you have to do to keep match fit, so hopefully I’ll get the opportunity at Quins.”