SCOTLAND still have a huge amount of rugby to be played between now and the 2019 World Cup, and Gregor Townsend is not exactly running out of time to decide on his squad for the tournament. Last week, however, after announcing the 33 names for next month’s tour to Canada, the United States and Argentina, the head coach made it plain that for some of those hoping to be on the plane to Japan, time is indeed short.
The national team are scheduled to play 16 Tests before the World Cup, but for some of this summer’s tourists, it is the forthcoming three which will determine their chances of being involved in 16 months’ time.
Arithmetic alone determines that a couple will be disappointed: with 31 players, the World Cup squad will be two short of the number who will soon set off for the Americas. Then there are the first-choice players from this season’s Six Nations who are either being rested or omitted because of injury: John Barclay, Jonny Gray, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Gordon Reid, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour and Ryan Wilson in the former category; John Hardie, Huw Jones, Willem Nel and Hamish Watson in the latter. Add in the uncapped Edinburgh forward Luke Crosbie, also listed as unavailable due to injury, and that makes 13 non-tourists who can be expected to be in contention for a place in Japan.
Such competition has to help raise standards throughout the squad, and certainly suggests that some of the fringe players about to go on tour will have to seize the moment. “It’s not the last chance, but it’s a great opportunity,” as Townsend explained. “We certainly have the World Cup in our mind when we’re planning what a 31-man squad will look like in 14-15 months’ time. Obviously things will change with injury and form, but we believe the players on this tour have a chance of being in that squad.
“They could play their way into that squad and have a real lasting memory of what they did on this tour – and they could certainly play their way out of that squad by what they do. But there’s still a lot of rugby to be played.”
The player with the most obvious opportunity to cement his place in the squad longer term is Adam Hastings, the only specialist stand-off in the group of 33. Hastings’ Glasgow team-mate Ruaridh Jackson played a lot at 10 before switching to full-back and could slot in there again in one of the three Tests, while Peter Horne is eminently capable of moving to stand-off from centre. Newcomer James Lang, like Horne, is seen as primarily a centre who can deputise at fly-half, and Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn are also able to play there.
But, while there is no shortage of versatility in the backs, Townsend is convinced that specialist cover for Russell is a priority. “It is important,” the coach said. “Obviously Adam’s played there at Glasgow this year, and played well recently, which is great. I thought he played really well in the Six Nations period, and then coming off the bench against Edinburgh he looked confident.
“Peter Horne played very well against Connacht for Glasgow. Ruaridh Jackson – who hasn’t played there for Glasgow this year, but has played really well for Scotland – is another player who we would potentially look to play at ten on tour, but a lot will depend on what we see with Adam. He’s there as a 10 and will get an opportunity this summer.”
An in-form Hastings, then, will find himself pushing at an open door. And, with Tim Visser having announced his retirement, wingers Byron McGuigan and Lee Jones also have the chance to push their claims. George Horne, meanwhile, looks like going into the tour as first-choice scrum-half, having latterly taken over that role from Ali Price at Glasgow.
An extra level of intrigue will be added this summer by the fact that there is also uncertainty as to the composition of the coaching team for 2019. Forwards coach Dan McFarland has just begun a nine-month notice period before leaving to take over at Ulster, and Carl Hogg, who is about to stand down as head coach at Worcester, will assume some of McFarland’s duties on an interim basis.
“He will be on tour with us as part of the coaching team,” Townsend said of the 48-year-old, who won five caps for Scotland in the 1990s. “It’s an opportunity for Carl to coach on this tour and to be one of the options we’ll be considering after the tour. He’ll be in charge of the lineouts, Dan will focus on scrum and contact, whereas before Dan would have looked at the lineouts as well. So far in our meetings, the combination has gone really well.”
Hogg has not been accorded the status of front-runner to take over from McFarland, and Townsend would only say “TBC” when asked if the former Melrose forward would still be involved by the time of the four November Tests. But the fact that Hogg is availability could weigh significantly in his favour if McFarland leaves early and quickly – something which could well happen despite the SRU’s public insistence that the Englishman will see out his contract. A significant offer from Ulster could easily persuade the governing body to change their stance, and if McFarland were to leave around the time of the Autumn Tests, Hogg – presuming he acquitted himself well on tour – would be seen as the continuity candidate.