Fresh Scotland ready to take on the world

Charlie Bennett
03 August 2019

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Scotland kick off their Rugby World Cup preparations against France in little over two weeks’ time but head coach Gregor Townsend admits he is no closer to deciding his final squad.

With injuries hampering their Guinness Six Nations campaign, Townsend was forced to plunge into his bag of spare parts to see what fit. Luckily, for him a lot did.

However, Townsend now has a conundrum. Not everyone can go to Japan and the head coach must make some big decisions in the coming weeks to get the balance just right in his exciting squad.

In a tough Pool A that also features hosts Japan and Ireland, Scotland must be spot on and assistant coach Danny Wilson is rightly excited.

“We’re in that nice fluffy time when everyone’s getting on really well because there’s no selection, but that’s around the corner for us,” he said.

“I’m seeing a Scotland squad that – touch wood – is all fit and I’m seeing lots of competition for places and an intensity in training.

“In Scotland we need that competition and depth, and the bonus from the Six Nations is that we’re developing that.”

SQUAD BREAKDOWN

After two and a half years, Townsend is finally standing on the precipice of his first World Cup in charge of the national team.

His 44-man training squad consists of players plying their trade in England’s Premiership and Championship and France’s Top 14 – but as ever there is an intense Guinness PRO14 flavour.

19 of those hail from Glasgow Warriors while a further 13 call Edinburgh home and those natural combinations will only benefit them when it comes to the opener against Ireland on September 22.

In contrast to their Gaelic cousins, who have picked a battle-hardened and proven squad, Scotland’s is more exuberant, fresh and youthful.

29 members of the training squad are aiming to play in their first World Cup, while 16 have fewer than ten international caps.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this squad is wet behind the ears. Flanker John Barclay made his World Cup debut back in 2007 and is bidding for his third tournament while Stuart Hogg first toured with the Lions as far back as 2013.

Add in the reliable Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half, WP Nel at prop and Tommy Seymour on the wing, and this side has enough big-match nous to marry with the energy of the likes of Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn.

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KEY MAN

Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg are two of the stand-out performers in Scotland’s squad but Stuart McInally has quickly become vital to the cause.

The Edinburgh hooker – and part-time pilot – has soared from Edinburgh’s third-choice to Scotland’s first, even taking the armband at the back end of the Six Nations.

A solid line-out thrower, reliable scrummer and nimble around the park, McInally will be involved in all aspects of the game. And as a former openside flanker, expect him to be an absolute menace at the breakdown and in support play.

Meanwhile Russell, who has the vision and creativity at fly-half, has a battle on his hands – with Adam Hastings pushing hard to start.

The 22-year-old Glasgow Warriors fly-half is the son of Gavin and has the talent to match is famous father.

Elsewhere, Hamish Watson is going to be crucial in the back row. The burly Edinburgh flanker is a pest to play against.

Fierce in the tackle, relentless at the breakdown and surprisingly powerful in the loose – all with the energy of a Duracell bunny – Watson’s ability to turn the ball over and provide a platform for the backs to work from is vital to Townsend’s cause.

CLUB PARTNERSHIPS

With 32 of Scotland’s players coming from just two teams, there are combinations across the field for Townsend to plot with.

Four of Glasgow Warriors’ centres – Peter Horne, Huw Jones, Kyle Steyn and Sam Johnson – are all battling for a spot, while Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray will hope to carry their Warriors partnership onto the international stage.

But it’s Edinburgh’s back row which could really hold the key here.

With the experienced Barclay back fit and the young Magnus Bradbury an emerging force to blend with Hamish Watson, the Scottish capital could well provide the entire back row.

And there is also the option of Jamie Ritchie to consider, so impressive during the Six Nations and a powerful carrying option.

While there is plenty of competition in the back row, not least from Scarlets’ Blade Thomson, injured all season but with huge pedigree, it seems certain that Edinburgh will have a big influence on the trio.

WILD CARD

Graham’s impact since bursting through in the Doddie Weir Cup match against Wales in November is remarkable and may just convince Townsend to take four wingers, with Kinghorn also backing up full-back Hogg.

He has three tries in four matches and represents everything that’s good about this squad after crossing against Wales and then twice more against England in the spring.

However, so sharp has been his rise, Graham may not be a wild card anymore, although his push for a starting role will be worth keeping a close eye on. Therefore, Kyle Steyn takes the biscuit here.

A year ago, few had heard of Steyn but, such is the impact the centre has made since arriving at Glasgow Warriors, the 25-year-old could well arrive in Japan as Scotland’s new x-factor back.

At 6ft 1, Steyn is hardly going to punch holes through a defence but the former Sevens player has the ability to make things happen.

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His quick feet, even quicker hands and robust defence caught the eye in the Guinness PRO14 Final Series last season and Townsend did not wait to call him up – despite being uncapped.

“Kyle has made an excellent impact since his debut for Glasgow earlier this season and has displayed strong defensive capabilities as well as a providing go-forward when carrying ball,” Townsend said.

“We have others in our squad that we view more as centre/wings but I’m sure over the course of the summer Kyle will get the opportunity to show what he can do in both positions.”

While few knew who Steyn was when he was called into the Six Nations squad (but did not play) in March, he could be a household name by the end of the World Cup.

KEY BATTLE

Outside Russell, Scotland have a stable full of horses ready to gallop in the centres and slimming down the pool to just four will occupy Townsend’s mind.

A year ago, Glasgow’s Huw Jones would have been inked into the starting XV but he missed much of the Six Nations with a knee injury and struggled to regain form at the back of last season.

His quality is, however, undoubted. 21 Test caps have yielded ten Test tries for Jones and the bigger the stage, the better he performs.

Just ask Australia after Jones burned them for two tries on his Test debut in November 2016, or England – who he torched for two tries at Twickenham the following year and then again in 2018 as Scotland regained the Calcutta Cup.

His fellow Warriors centre Sam Johnson seems a certainty to go, while Peter Horne is Mr Consistent and has the advantage of covering fly-half.

Then you have Steyn who brings the element of surprise, as well as the ability to fill in on the wing if required.

Add in Saracens’ Duncan Taylor, a classy yet injury-prone midfielder, Newcastle Falcons’ Chris Harris and Northampton Saints youngster Rory Hutchinson, and Townsend has a big call to make.

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