GREGOR Townsend is hopeful that Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw will have recovered from his broken leg in time for next year’s Six Nations Championship, and is taking encouragement from the speed with which the scrum-half recovered from his last injury. The national coach, who announces his squad for the three Autumn Tests on Monday, is also optimistic about John Barclay’s chances of returning to action soon.
Laidlaw suffered what at first was thought to be just an ankle knock during the last minutes of Clermont’s match against the Ospreys last weekend, but tests by the French club’s medical staff later revealed a fracture of the fibula. The prognosis for the 32-year-old is six weeks’ rest followed by four to six weeks’ rehabilitation before he can resume playing, and, while the timescale is tight, Townsend believes his skipper can be back in time for the international championship, which begins on 3 February with Scotland’s visit to Wales.
“During the game we weren’t aware of the extent of his injury,” Townsend said. “We were hoping it wasn’t too bad. It was in the last play of the game.
“I was watching the game and when he got injured we were hoping he wasn’t going to miss the November Tests, but unfortunately he’ll be out for two or three months. It’s bad timing, but he recovered very well from his last ankle injury and went on the Lions tour. It would be close, but if his recovery goes well he should be available for the start of the [Six Nations] tournament.”
Barclay, who has taken over the national captaincy before when Laidlaw has been unavailable, has been sidelined because of a slow recovery from a concussion. Now, however, he is close to making a return to action for Scarlets, and provided he comes through that he will be favourite to lead Scotland again in the forthcoming Murrayfield matches against Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
“Things are looking better for John,” Townsend added. “He saw a specialist at the beginning of the week – he’s back in training now, so he feels a lot better. He should be back playing soon.”
Townsend was speaking as the SRU officially launched their Scottish Qualified programme, details of which were announced at the governing body’s annual general meeting in the summer. The aim is to use an expanded network of representatives in the UK, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere to identify Scottish-qualified players. Huw Jones, Ali Price, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson are among those recent players to have become successful Scotland internationals after initially playing their rugby outwith this country, and Townsend believes the network is an important way of ensuring that Scotland remain as competitive as possible.
“Throughout Scottish rugby history, but even more so in the professional game as more countries are getting organised, none more so than England, it’s very important for us as a nation and as a national team but also for the players,” Townsend said of the need to attract as many Scottish-qualified players as possible. “They get an opportunity to play for the country that they’re qualified to play for, and I’m sure that their families are very proud that they play for Scotland. So this newly enhanced programme really helps us to identify more players and more opportunity for players to be noticed by us, to come on our radar and potentially play for Scotland.”
The impending change of the international residency rules from three years to five will make that a less attractive route for players, Townsend believes – and if he is right, still more emphasis will be placed on the Scottish Qualified programme as a recruitment vehicle for the national team. “I think it will still happen, but it is less likely to happen,” he added. “So the programme and the timing of it is crucial. We want to find out as many players who are qualified either through birth, parents or grandparents to see if they’re ready to play for Scotland at age-group level or the full national team.”
Players are irrevocably committed to a particular nation if they play for the full national side, that country’s designated second team (Scotland A, in our case) or its national sevens squad. While the likes of Price, Watson and Wilson have all come to Scotland to play club rugby before being capped, Townsend does not see that as a necessary sign of a player’s commitment, citing the example of Jones, who was called up by Scotland while still based in South Africa.
“Huw Jones is a great example of someone who was playing Currie Cup and then had a great impact with Scotland. It’s even better now he’s signed for Glasgow – but ability to play at national level is key.”