AT lunchtime today [Tuesday], Gregor Townsend named a 36-man training squad, which contained ten potential new caps, ahead of next month’s Autumn Test Series. Here is the lowdown on all the key issues surrounding his selection.
Who is Luke Hamilton?
A 25-year-old Welsh-born back-row ball-carrier who has played 30 competitive matches for Leicester Tigers since signing from Agen in the summer of 2016. He is 6ft 3ins, weighs 16st 5lbs and was the top tackler in the Top 14 during the 2015-16 season.
He came through the ranks at the Scarlets but was released by the region when still a teenager and moved to Cardiff Blues, where he struggled for game time and ended up turning out for the Cardiff club side. In the summer of 2014, he took a leap of faith by joining Agen, who were at that time playing in the second tier French PRO D2.
He represented Wales at Under-20 level for two seasons, and was in the team which achieved an historic 9-6 victory over the Baby Blacks at the 2012 Junior World Cup, but qualifies to play for Scotland through his Stirling-born father.
Gregor Townsend [GT] said: “We have known for a couple of years he is Scotland qualified. First of all from a Glasgow perspective we were interested in signing him when he was playing for agen. He ended up at Leicester and we played against them with Glasgow last year.”
“He has always said through his agent that he was very interested. It is his form that has got him into the squad this year.”
“As a coaching group with Scotland we have had a good look at him this year and he is playing really well. He is more in our mind as a six or eight, but he has played the last two games at seven in Champions Cup and was one of the best players on the field. For him to commit to Scotland is great for us. We look forward to working with him.”
As a former Wales Under-20 cap, could this be another Steven Shingler episode?
It seems not. Hamilton didn’t play against France in either 2011 or 2012 and they were the only other team with the U20s as their capture side. From July 2014, World Rugby changed the rules so that anybody who played in the Junior World Cup or Six Nations was tied to that country, but this was not applied retrospectively.
GT: “It is checked. It is all done and dusted. He did not play in a game that would have got him captured by Wales.”
Who is Chris Harris?
A 26-year-old centre-cum-winger who was born in Carlisle then moved to Newcastle at age 18 to join the Falcons Academy and study architecture at Northumbria University, whilst playing on Saturday’s for National League One side Tynedale. He qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother from Edinburgh, but toured Belgium with the England Counties squad in 2013. He joined Falcons full-time in 2013-14, was dual registered with English Championship side Rotherham Titans in 2014-15, and became a regular in the Falcons squad during the 2015-16 season. He has scored 15 tries in 60 competitive games for the Falcons and has played every minute of every Aviva Premiership game the club has competed in this season.
GT: “Chris Harris was very close to making the summer tour squad. He is a player we have known for a while. He burst onto the scene a couple of seasons ago – more as a winger that could play in the centre – and scored a couple of cracking tries against Saracens. This season he has played more at 13 and has improved defensively. He has been very physical in defence. At the weekend he played wing which is again of interest to us but we see him more as a 13.”
“His family is all from Carlisle so almost a Borderer!”
What has Byron McGuigan done to resurrect his international prospects since leaving Glasgow Warriors in 2014?
Townsend was the Warriors coach when the Namibian-born winger left the club, but says he had no hesitation in bringing the 28-year-old back into the Scottish fold.
After leaving Warriors, McGuigan played two years with Exeter Chiefs and is now in his second season with Sale Sharks.
GT: “He was disappointed to miss out in the summer. He was playing well for Sale and only just missed out. The best thing for us is that he’s got even better and he’s in the squad on form.”
“He is joint leading try scorer in England. He has taken his game to another level this year. When Edinburgh played Sale in pre-season you could see there was more presence about Byron. He physically looked like he had done more work in the gym. There is a confidence about him which shows through by the number of tries he is scoring.”
“He didn’t play that much for Exeter, but when he did play – mainly at full-back – he played very well. Now he is playing regularly on the wing [at Sale] when they’ve got Denny Solomona, Josh Charnley and some very good young English players, which shows that he’s grabbing his opportunities in games and impressing the coaches during the week.”
“The way he’s created tries and scored them this year is obviously of interest to us.”
Why is Nathan Fowles the third scrum-half in the squad?
GT: “An opportunity opened up for a number of scrum-halves with Greig Laidlaw being injured. There was a lot of competition. I want to mention Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Ben Vellacot [Scottish mother and plays for Gloucester] and Scott Steele [Dumfries born and plays for London Irish] who have all impressed us in recent weeks. Nathan started the season really well and he has kept up that form. His passing accuracy is something we look for in our nines. He is more suited to the rugby we aspire to play.”
Are all your back-row options going to be fit?
GT: “We delayed announcement because we wanted to be able to name players who would be available to play for us in November. Hamish [Watson] is likely to be available this week, John Barclay is in a similar situation, while Ryan Wilson has played five games in a row and would have been rested anyway. We expect all three will be okay to play next week.”
“John Barclay met a specialist and has been cleared to resume training. I spoke to him this morning and he trained yesterday [Monday]. The next step is contact tomorrow [Wednesday]. It’ll be up to his coach to decide whether to play him at the weekend.”
Is the door closed to everyone not named in this initial squad?
GT: “There are a couple of guys who may be available in late November, such as Sean Maitland, but we don’t see him being available for our training camp or Samoa. He may be available for Australia, but more likely for our final game.”
“Magnus [Bradbury] is recovering from an injury and has not been playing for Edinburgh because of the background [he was suspended after a being concussed in a light night fall in Edinburgh city centre]. If Magnus gets back in the Edinburgh team during this period – and he should be available next weekend – then he becomes someone we are interested in.”
Are Scotland looking a bit light at loose-head prop?
The short answer is: Yes. The slightly longer answer is: Very light.
With Alasdair Dickinson [foot], Allan Dell [groin] and Gordon Reid [third concussion this year] all unavailable for the duration of the series, and Rory Sutherland playing just 30 minutes for Hawick in the BT Premiership at the weekend in his comeback after a year out with a groin problem, Townsend has had to put his faith in two uncapped players.
Jamie Bhatti has done exceptionally well since signing his first full-time contract with Glasgow Warriors during the summer, but has only been involved in fourteen pro games and was part of a pack which struggled horribly against Exeter Chiefs and Leinster during the last fortnight.
Blooding the 24-year-old during November would be no bad thing, but Scotland could really do with a bit of experience providing back-up. That is not going to be the case because while 26-year-old Darryl Marfo has been around the pro scene for a few years longer [since 2012], only five of his 30 top flight pro appearances has been as a starter, and there are big doubts about the solidity of the Edinburgh scrum when he is involved.
GT: “I thought Jamie scrummed really well against Leinster, Darryl scrummed really well against Leinster away [in the PRO14 a couple of weeks back] and at the weekend. Marfo has impressed us with his consistency. He has had a number of starts for Edinburgh now. He has got better each week.”
“We’re confident both of them will do a really good job for us, but there are other guys out there – Murray McCallum was in our squad in St Andrews [during pre-season], Alex Allan was on tour and Rory Sutherland played his first game at the weekend after being out for a long time. But those two guys are in pole position to play against Samoa.”
“Jamie’s got ahead of Alex at Glasgow, and has been playing not just regularly but 70 to 80 minutes, which shows how much he’s improved and how much the coaches at Glasgow feel he’s able to play. The more game time you get better.”
Why has Dougie Fife been selected ahead of Tim Visser?
GT: “Tim is one of a number of players we’ve given feedback to about what we’re looking for from them to be in the squad and playing well for Scotland. Over the last few games Tim has got himself back into the Harlequins team but just hasn’t hit the form we know he’s capable of.”
“Things we want from him is working harder off the ball, adding to the defensive side of his game as well as the attack side we know so well.”
“The way he played for Scotland and Quins last year was outstanding. He hasn’t got back to that level this season. Scoring tries is part of it, but the teams we are playing against will be moving the ball around a lot. We need certain things from our wingers, like high work-rate. Just now Tim is not showing that enough. But things may change. Tim knows what he has to work on.”
“Dougie has really taken a lot of confidence from how he played with the Scotland 7s squad last year and is now playing really well for Edinburgh. What we like about Dougie is his work-rate off the ball but also his running lines.
“And it’s well deserved. It’s great to see a player who has maybe dropped out of a coach’s reckoning but has worked hard to find a different route to come back and be a better player.”
What’s happening with Huw Jones?
GT: “He has been playing regular rugby and has a big game [for Western Province in the Currie Cup Final against the Sharks] this weekend. He played in the semi-final against the Lions last weekend and did well. He looks in good physical shape.”
“We were out in South Africa two weeks ago and spent a couple of days with the Stormers before watching the Springboks against the All Blacks. It was great to meet Huw and see what he was doing in training. The timing works well from a Scotland point of view, if not so well for Glasgow.
“He will play in the final on Saturday. We meet up on Sunday so we will likely see him Sunday or Monday, and then he will be ready for our training camp and fight his way to get a stating position against Samoa.”
Scotland squad for 2017 Autumn Tests –
Simon Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby) – 3 caps
Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors) – uncapped
John Barclay (Scarlets) CAPTAIN – 63 caps
Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors) – uncapped
Cornell Du Preez (Edinburgh Rugby) – 2 caps
Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) – 12 caps
Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) – 110 caps
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) – 16 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 35 caps
Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps
Luke Hamilton (Leicester Tigers) – uncapped
Darryl Marfo (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – 9 caps
Willem Nel (Edinburgh Rugby) – 18 caps
Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby) – 4 caps
George Turner (Glasgow Warriors) – uncapped
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 30 caps
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 12 caps
Phil Burleigh (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 26 caps
Dougie Fife (Scotland 7s) – 6 caps
Nathan Fowles (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons) – uncapped
Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors) – 1 cap
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 53 caps
Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 25 caps
Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) – 31 caps
Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 5 caps
Huw Jones (Stormers) – 8 caps
Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) – uncapped
Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) – 8 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 24 caps
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 29 caps
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 36 caps
Unavailable through injury: Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh Rugby), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Allan Dell, Alasdair Dickinson (both Edinburgh Rugby), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Rory Hughes (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Matt Scott (Gloucester), Duncan Taylor (Saracens).
Scotland 2017 Autumn Tests
Saturday 11 November – Scotland v Samoa, BT Murrayfield Stadium (kick-off 2.30pm)
Saturday 18 November – Scotland v New Zealand, BT Murrayfield Stadium (kick-off 5.15pm)
Saturday 25 November – Scotland v Australia, BT Murrayfield Stadium (kick-off 2.30pm)