10 takeaways from Gregor Townsend’s 2024 Six Nations squad announcement

Scotland head coach discusses Alec Hepburn, Will Hurd, Arron Reed and Harry Paterson selections, plus Jamie Ritchie's future as captain

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend talks through his 2024 Six Nations training squad with the press at Murrayfield this [Tuesday] afternoon. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend talks through his 2024 Six Nations training squad with the press at Murrayfield this [Tuesday] afternoon. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

1. Why are you giving thought to changing the captaincy?

Gregor Townsend said:

Partly the competition in the back-row, and Jamie Ritchie missing the last couple of weeks [with a jaw injury]. When we were debating the squad last week and again on Monday we didn’t know when he’d be back available but I believe he’ll be fit for this weekend. Because there’s so much competition in that back-row we’ve got to make sure we pick players who are playing well, are in form and will help us win.

He’ll be one of the favourites to be captain, but we’ll leave that decision to after this weekend. He’s likely to be competing with the guys who have captained the team before. Rory Darge captained the team, and Finn Russell did as well in the summer, and Grant Gilchrist has captained the team before. Sione Tuipulotu has been a vice-captain and has been leading Glasgow really well in recent weeks, so those are players in our leadership group and I’d have thought if there was a different captain in this Six Nations it would come out of that group.

If he plays well [for Edinburgh against Scarlets this Friday], he puts himself in a strong position. The first role of our leaders is to play well. That’s the best way to lead because that means you get in the team. Jamie has missed the last two or three weeks and is up against some players who are playing really well in recent weeks so he knows he has to deliver a performance this week which I’m sure he will.


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2. Any qualms about calling up Alec Hepburn, who was previously capped six times by England?

It is a fluid concept. I could use a number of examples where it’s not as straightforward as you might believe.

Cam Redpath’s dad was captain of Scotland and all his family are Scottish but he was brought up in England because Bryan, his dad, went to play for Sale and ended his career there. Cam Redpath played for England under-18s, England under-20s and was selected by Eddie Jones to go on tour and could have been playing for England. But the fact was that he was dual-qualified and a player who was of interest to us.

We have to compete with all the other countries looking at players who are dual and triple qualified, so you have to be open-minded with everyone.

We’ve got to pick who we believe is the best player to help us win and that’s only right and what our supporters, I believe, would want us to do.

Ideally, we’d be producing more players that come through the Scottish pathway but it’s never been as straightforward as that. A lot of Scots travel, a lot of Scots bring their families up outside of Scotland and they’re proud when their lads and girls play for Scotland, so we’ve got to make sure we’re aware of these players who are dual qualified.

Someone like Alec Hepburn wasn’t English qualified. He qualified on residency. He’s got a Scottish father, was brought up in Australia but finished schooling in England, and after a few years became involved with the England set-up.

I’m delighted he’s now with us. He’s at a good age for a loose-head prop [29] and can go straight in and play Test level.

3. What persuaded him to throw his lot in with Scotland?

I spoke to him about 18 months ago and had a couple of really good conversations with him, but at that time he wasn’t selected, wasn’t prepared to commit to Scotland.

But he’s always talked about Scotland over the years. He used to wind up Jonny Gray [his club mate at Exeter Chiefs] saying he was going to go via the sevens route and play in the Olympics in order to qualify for Scotland.

This has now opened up for him in the last year or two with the new law change and I’ve been really impressed with him the last two or three weeks. I was at the Exeter versus Northampton game where he played really well off the bench, and at the weekend there he played very well against Glasgow.

He was out for a long period at the beginning of the season with glandular fever and during that time he thought about Scotland and thought his chance had gone.

It was a real motivator for him coming back. Playing at Sandy Park at the weekend was a motivator because he hadn’t played there for a number of months.

He was really taken aback when we talked over the weekend and the last couple of days [and explained] that there was a chance that he could be in the squad.

So it’s great that someone’s come back from some adversity and set a goal and it’s looking like he’ll achieve it.

I think he’s the type of player that really suits the way we play. He’s aggressive, high skill, and has real pace.

And it’s a challenge to someone like Rory Sutherland who has the next two or three games for Oyonnax to show us his best rugby. We are big believers in Rory, he’s been involved with us for a while now, we just want him to get back to his best too.

He was off the bench at the weekend, they played Sharks and he scrummed well. He missed the two weeks before that, but I believe he’s starting this weekend. We’ll be continuing to watch his performances.

 

4. Tell us about Will Hurd?

He has played regularly [at tight-head prop] for Leicester this year. He played Scotland under-20s and was on Glasgow’s books a few years back for a a short period and we have been impressed with him this year. He is solid at scrum time, hits hard in defence. Pieter de Villiers has been in contact with him for a while, giving him feedback around his game. He was delighted to be called up. It has been a dream for him since playing under-20.

5. You must have been chewing your nails whilst watching Zander Fagerson playing 80 minutes for Glasgow against Exeter at the weekend given how short of options you are at tight-head?

There are not many but we have more depth than ever before. WP [Nel] is playing the best rugby of his career. He played 72 minutes both games against Glasgow and made 20 tackles a game so that is great. A couple of years ago we never thought WP would still be playing but he is, and playing well. Javan Sebastian was going really well and did well against Castres before getting his injury. He should be back available by the start of the tournament, might just miss the first couple of games.

D’Arcy Rae is back at Edinburgh, Angus Williams [is at Edinburgh too], and Will Hurd now becomes available for us.

Murphy Walker, who was in the wider World Cup squad, is coming back from injury and will be back for round one or two [of the Six Nations].

Clearly Zander is our leading tight-head and has been for a number of years and that showed what Glasgow think of him playing him 80 minutes in a Champions Cup game and he was still going well at the end of the game.

6. Is Harry Paterson ready for this step up after just a handful of pro appearances for Edinburgh?

I believe he is and that is based on the two away games he played for Edinburgh. Against Ulster he was outstanding and then in the very tough environment of Clermont he fronted up with his kick-chase, his tackling, and his energy. Edinburgh didn’t win but he was part of a positive performance. It would have been great to see him play against Castres but he got injured in the first 10 minutes. On the flip side, he got off the bench early at the weekend and looked dangerous.

 

7. What will Arron Reed add to the squad?

He brings real energy. He’s a player in form, he works hard on the field and he’s got outstanding pace. From my meetings with him over the last year or two, I believe he is someone who has got a growth mindset. From his feedback, he can’t wait to be working with an international squad, training alongside the wingers we have in our squad, so we’re looking forward to having him in our group.

8. What about the other English and Welsh based players you have been linked with?

I’ve chatted to Gus [Warr] and Tom [Roebuck] over a number of weeks. They are players of interest for us who are playing regularly for clubs. They will be people that we watch and give feedback to. They’re not in our squad right now for different reasons. The ones we have in the squad are the ones we believe in.

[Fin Smith] was in England’s extended World Cup squad so I’d imagine he’ll be in their squad that gets announced tomorrow [Wednesday]. When someone’s already committed to another team it’s usually just a matter of time before they’ve then capped.

[Fraser Dingwall] is dual qualified too but was in the wider England squad for the World Cup so we’ll see if he’s selected for them.”

[Rhys Litterick and Jacob Beetham] are players who are dual-qualified and not in the Wales squad. I’d imagine they’ll continue talking to Wales and we are certainly watching and giving them feedback from a Scottish perspective as well.

 

9. Does not selecting 32-year-old Hamish Watson effectively mean he has been retired from international rugby?

No, I don’t believe that’s the case. It was the same conversation with Chris Harris who’s a year older than Hamish. We’ll select on how players are playing and who they’re competing with as well.

Hamish, when he came back into the Edinburgh team, played well and had two really good games. He maybe didn’t play as well in the first game against Glasgow but it’s more the level of performances we’ve seen from the likes of Andy Christie and Luke Crosbie. They’ve been really good this year.

And when you’re competing as open-sides … we need to make sure we have a blend of players who can play No 8 and line-out forwards in our squad too.

Hamish is good enough to play Test rugby tomorrow so maybe this disappointment will have a positive effect as well and he’ll go for it in the one game before the break for Edinburgh and put pressure on that selection. But physically Hamish has a lot of rugby left in him.

Chris [Harris] actually played well the last two or three weeks. He’s obviously disappointed not to make it, but Huw [Jones] has had a great year for us. I think he has played really well when he’s had to move to the wing, but he did play really well at 13 in Glasgow’s win against Bayonne. Hopefully he’ll get some game time at 13 this week.

And Rory Hutchinson has really come through in the last month. He missed about six weeks with injury. So he’s had to compete hard to get into the Northampton team, and since he’s been back in that team he’s performed really well.

10. How close is Rory Darge to being fit again?

Friday will be the three-week mark from his injury and there will be a series of tests which get conducted then. So, we’ll have a clearer picture this weekend on whether he is a chance for the opening weekend, or the opening two weekends. Let’s hope that is the case.

 

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Four new caps named in Scotland’s Six Nations training squad

About David Barnes 3821 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

15 Comments

  1. I have no problem that Scotland casts its net far and wide in order to have a competitive team against most nations.
    If it was just left to Scottish born l believe Scotland would never be able to compete at the top level again. Our pathway does not work but perhaps we have too many expectations placed there. It is very easy to say we need change but realistically l feel we do very well at a international level, the odd win way above expectations along with the poor performances that are a reality for us as a nation.
    I love the expectation of a grand slam against the reality of a grand slam. That is what supporting Scotland is about, just don’t remind me of that after a hammering from France or Ireland!

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  2. It has been a chat for a long time…
    Pro rugby is a big business nowdays.
    A tough reality, Scotland with 2 pro teams…
    30 in France with some Pro D2 budgets bigger than Glasgow and Edinburgh.
    How to compete?
    Even in the past, Scotland team was full of players from english Unis.
    2 Grand Slams in scottish history.
    Scottish rugby with around 25000 adult players is not so depressing!

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    • Hugues is absolutely right. Given the Scottish diaspora around the world is probably greater per head of population than any other (except perhaps the Irish), it should come as no surprise that we spread our net far and wide in search of players. We always have. Consider the fillowing: Sean Lineen, John and Martin Leslie, Damian Cronin, Ian McGeechan, Tom Smith, Glen Metcalfe, Tommy Seymour, David Sole, Sean Maitland, Duncan Taylor, Ryan Wilson, Jim Hamilton. All the above, none born in Scotland, some with only tenuous links, whether amateur or professional, wore the shirt with great pride and considerable success. It was not a shirt of convenience just to get an international cap on the CV. I am sure there are many others. We should continue to spread that net as widely as possible until or unless the pathway to international level improves to the extent that we have a conveyor belt producing Test ready players (as the Irish have). That the said pathway is not fit for purpose is not Gregor’s failure. It is the SRU’s. Gregor, and his successors, should continue to scour the world for Scots qualified players until he has a viable alternative to pick from. Failure to do so in the absence of a proper pathway will mean we’ll struggle to beat Italy thirds before long.

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    • Mon dieu, Hugues…. 25,000 adult joueurs de rugby en Ecosse! C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (ou vrai) mon petit chou.

  3. Whoever get’s carded from the above Squad the absolute must is an away win in Cardiff, fail there and there is little chance of a way back. However with France and England at home who knows, fingers crossed the French live up to their old reputation of not travelling well, although that is becoming a distant memory, then England possibly having put Italy away being over confident. That said Rome has been a Banana skin for us in the past but if we get that far surely we couldn’t slip up against Italy. Could we really head off to Dublin in March with a chance of some Silverware, I can’t recall who commented some time ago on this forum that ‘it’s the hope that kills us’ indeed it is.
    But what are the odds of a Grand Slam: OK stop giggling at the back, we can all dream at the start of the season, the Nightmare only arrives at the end.
    Regarding the Anglo’s especially Hepburn at least he has a qualification with his Dad, and you can’t blame Townsend for taking the same liberties as other Tier 1 Nations because typically World Rugby do not, and have not had, the intellect too consider the unintended consequences of their actions, there is plenty evidence of that, especially the Red Card mania and a frankly over zealous approach to some head contact BUT not others.
    That said however the have boots will travel doesn’t sit easy in my mind especially when you have had a full International Cap elsewhere and despite the excellent performances from the residency qualified players I still would rather have familial connections, and yes Grand Parents are acceptable.

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  4. Townsend’s job is to select and coach the best Scotland team available to him. He’s not in charge of player pathways although I am sure he will have his views on it. Sadly the absolute necessity of turning over every stone to find players with a Scottish qualification and even more so the ignominy of having to convince players to want to play for Scotland over another nation is the reality of where the game is in this country and likely will be for some time. This is Dodson’s legacy.

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  5. Would love to know what the ‘different reasons’ are for Warr and Roebuck not to be included. The latter is quite realistically holding out for an England call-up, while Fin Smith is their best available all-round ten with Ford and Farrell out of contention. Suspect he might well slot into the team ahead of Marcus Smith, who couldn’t put in a tackle like Finn’s if his life depended upon it. Very flash when things are gong well, but too wee and frail against the big boys and tends to disappear under pressure. Hutchinson will probably not get a game for us, while I suspect his otherwise-minded buddy Fraser Dingwall will spend the rest of his life in squad limbo, just waiting for the occasional England cap that may or may not ever come his way. The Anglos we have recruited this time don’t exactly blow me away with excitement, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be looking south to plug the gaps that aren’t being filled at home. Although I wish they were, far more convincingly than is currently the case. There are an awful lot of us sons of the heather living down here who are still as committed to the cause as ever we were. I’m married to an English wife – who thankfully supports Scotland – and nothing would thrill us more than for one of our boys to get picked to wear the blue. I never cease to be amused by the whining from some English folk who complain that we are pinching ‘their’ players. All of them lads with good Scots blood in their veins who are perfectly entitled to play for the land of their fathers. Must say I was delighted when young Redpath saw the error of his ways, for he is about as English as haggis – and I daresay his dear papa gave him a dingle in the lughole to help him see the error of his ways!

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    • Roebuck has been selected by England.

      He’s probably much more English than Scottish to be fair, but getting £25k per England appearance may have also been an influencing factor!

    • I don’t think anyone has much of an issue with us capping a handful of players with Scottish parentage. Personally, I think the grandparent rule goes too far. Don’t get me started on the residence rule.

      It’s more the fact that the proportion of SRU trained players is plummeting and has fallen below 50% for the first time with this squad. The SRU should admit it has abandoned grass roots rugby and rename as the Scottish men’s IV or something similar. They are not a union in the true sense of having a responsibility to nurture the game and give local kids a pathway to the top. They operate like a professional football club whose product is limited to the first team.

      At the end of the day, the Scotland jersey has to mean something.

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  6. I would hazard as guess that there are a lot more young rugby players with Scottish qualifications in Scotland than outside of Scotland. So the stats as where our new caps & squad members come from are telling.
    Does the “straightforward” reference mean that there are complicated issues such as (1) the quality of the coaching in the pathway and (2) the relationship between the SRU and the major clubs/ schools that nurture much of the talent up here at age 18 and under? These are real issues and need to be addressed now, because if they arent are talent pipeline will be restricted for the next 5-10 years.
    Given Gregor’s boss is leaving, maybe it’s time for him to articulate clearly what he sees as the issues as they must impact his squad selection.

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    • TBH I think Townsend is diplomatic but it is very clear that he thinks the Scottish pathways need to be addressed urgently and he’s commented publicly as far as is appropriate for his position I.e. we need to select players from other systems as the talent isn’t being produced in Scotland in sufficient numbers. I’d be shocked if he hadn’t shared detailed thoughts with those responsible about how the current system should be improved but I don’t think he should be expected to make those comments to the press.

      Dodson has made mistakes no doubt but he also appointed highly regarded figures to oversee the pathways and they have failed to deliver. This is the biggest issue facing Scottish rugby bar none and I hope the new CEO gets to grips with it urgently. We can’t really wait for them to be recruited and get their feet under the door though, we need to take action to at least improve performances in the short term. We’ll have driven off the cliff in 4/5 years.

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      • FF – I agree with what you say.
        But the SRU is a relatively small organisation. It shouldn’t have silos. We want a leader in the international coach position. Imagine the impact of Townsend taking an active interest in pathway and turning up at training sessions/ school & club fixtures. I am told that Cotter used to watch the schools games.
        To my mind, one of the things holding back the SRU is its culture. I think the situation is bad contrast with leadership at the IFRU and Leinster. People like Farrell and Lancaster have a broader grasp on what’s needed to build a successful culture. Let’s hope the SRU bring in people who can explain their vision for the future and avoid that cliff that we both fear.

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  7. “3. What persuaded him to throw his lot in with Scotland?”…..the fact he was offered an international position when other countries wouldn’t?

    “Ideally, we’d be producing more players that come through the Scottish pathway but it’s never been as straightforward as that”…..it can be, you need to get on with the ‘golden thread’ https://www.theoffsideline.com/john-mcguigan-interview-1/ and stop waffling about it.

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