IT was all about lost boys and comeback kids when Gregor Townsend named his 40-man training squad ahead of the Six Nations yesterday [Tuesday] morning.
On the same day as Scott Lawson and Jon Welsh (two former Glasgow Warriors players who broadened their horizons and prolonged their careers playing in the Aviva Premiership, most recently with Newcastle Falcons) were welcomed back into the Scotland fold after a number of years in the international wilderness, it also became apparent that scrum-half Ben Vellacott (who played 17 times for Scotland Under-20s in 2014 and 2015) is set to pledge his international future to the country of his birth.
There had been a fair bit of speculation before the squad announcement that Vellacott, who was born in Surrey and plays his club rugby for Gloucester, may be one of the new faces in the Scotland camp , but Nathan Fowles has now been added as the fourth scrum-half in the group.
“Ben is someone we have talked to a lot over the last couple of seasons. I almost signed him at Glasgow, he came up for a couple of days but decided to stay at Gloucester. We’ve been in regular communication with him. We’ll wait and see what squad England pick in the next couple of days but it looks likely that he might be involved with them in the Six Nations,” revealed Townsend.
“We’ve had conversations with him. We gave him feedback before November on how he was in the mix and there was a couple of other scrum-halves around as well – Scott Steele and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne were close to selection. All the indications are that he will be included in the England squad so is somebody we won’t consider.”
If Vellacott does – as Townsend clearly anticipates – throw his lot in with England then he will be the second graduate of the Scotland age-grade set-up to make this switch in allegiance in the last three weeks, following in the footsteps of flanker Gary Graham (son of former Scotand prop and coach George and also a former Scotland Under-20 cap), who was a surprise call-up to Eddie Jones’ training squad which convened during the first week in January. He qualifies for England through residency.
It may or may not be pure coincidence that this has happened less than three months after Scottish Rugby’s top brass made a big show of courting the English press to proudly unveil their ‘SQ’ scheme which has the stated aim of persuading Scottish qualified players who have not come through the domestic system to pursue their international ambitions north of the border, or it may indeed be a very deliberate shot across the bows from Twickenham. Either way, it serves as a timely reminder of where the balance of power is going to lie in any tug-of-war for a bright young player who has a choice to make between wearing the thistle or wearing the rose.
The financial benefits of choosing the latter are significant. Not only do England’s player match fees of £22,000 per game dwarf anything available in Scotland, but giving up EQP [English Qualified Player] status to play elsewhere seriously reduces market value in the eyes of Premiership club, who receive funding from the RFU on the basis of having a certain number of individuals eligible to play for England in their squad.
Heading down to London to trumpet the SQ initiative last October seemed a strange move at the time, and it could just be that the tactic has backfired. If you are going to steal from a giant, it is surely better to leave him sleeping rather than wake him up to explain what you are planning to do.
“There is real competition with players who we know are available to us and available to England. It is just the new reality,” reflected Townsend.
“Maybe in some ways you can view it as a positive. I don’t like using the term ‘our players’ – they are not ‘our players’, they played Under-20s for us but they are dual qualified like a number of players are in the game. We are part of the United Kingdom as well as being Scotland/England so a lot are going to have parentage or will have moved down south at some stage so that they can play for other countries.”
“It is the players’ decisions. You can understand that if you are playing in England you are in their system, whether that’s through your club and the EQP pressures which are on each club, and you are maybe going to be watched more by the England coaches. It is ultimately a choice the players have to make. If they get both those options then they have to commit to one of them.”
Turning the focus away from the players who are not there, Townsend spoke about the strength in depth he now sees in the squad. But the fact that so many of those named are coming into the tournament with no or minimal recent game-time due to injury does highlight just how close the gap is between famine and feast when it comes to squad selection for a country of Scotland’s size.
Townsend is hopeful that Stuart Hogg will play his first game since injuring his hip during the November Test series when Glasgow Warriors take on Exeter Chiefs this coming Saturday, but insists that he won’t be overly concerned if the talismanic full-back ends up going into the championship with no competitive rugby under his belt.
“I know he’s back in full training so it’s how he gets through this week [which will determine] if Glasgow decide to play him or put him on the bench or if they feel he’s not 100 per cent to play in the game,” said the coach. “We got some good news about his foot just before the weekend, which allowed him to resume full training this week. His hip injury had not been an issue, he’d got over that two or three weeks ago.”
“If he doesn’t play we don’t see any issues with him getting back to full fitness. His first game after being out since the Lions was against Leinster and he was outstanding. The following week he played very well against Samoa.”
“We’ll have two weeks build-up to that Wales game that will include some very tough sessions. So, for guys like Stuart, Greig Laidlaw, Ryan Wilson, Tommy Seymour, who we believe will be back this week, it will be a chance for them to prove they are fit to play international rugby.”
Laidlaw was not played for three months due to an ankle injury but has enough credit in the bank to have been parachuted straight back into the set-up, although he has not retrieved the captaincy from John Barclay.
“The plan for Greig is if everything goes well and he gets the all clear from seeing a specialist in London he’ll join up with us on Sunday and then Clermont will decide if he’s fit to play against Montpellier the week before the Wales game. He believes that in the last couple of weeks things have got much better so fingers crossed he gets the all clear. We’ve been speaking a lot with Clermont and their plan would be to involve him if he’s back to full training and availability,” explained Townsend.
“He was in great form leading into November. We understood it would be difficult going into a new environment in France with a different language but I was pleased with how he was playing. He would have had an opportunity with us in November. He would have been our captain. We obviously don’t know where he is yet until he comes back and plays. Our expectations are it will be tough for him to begin with just to get that match fitness. He’s been training well this week and let’s hope he gets back to his pre-injury form quickly,” he added.
Second-row Richie Gray also missed the November Tests due to injury, but is further down the road to full recovery. He will, however, face a huge battle to secure a spot in the Scotland boiler-house given the form shown by Edinburgh duo Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis, not to mention his Glasgow Warriors based brother Jonny, during the autumn.
“He’s played the last three games and 80 minutes in all three. He really impressed us in his first game to last 80 minutes after not playing for eight or nine months. He’s played well. He’s worked hard. I’m not sure if he’ll play this weekend but he’ll come into our camp on Sunday. It’s obviously better for the long-term injured players that they have more than one game so Richie is going to be close to that 23 given how well he’s played.”
Another player who has been named in the squad having hit the ground running after a lengthy lay-off is Edinburgh centre Mark Bennett, who has recovered from cruciate ligament surgery.
“It’s a great reminder that players can find their form pretty quickly. I felt sorry for Mark that his first game back [for Edinburgh against the Southern Kings two weeks ago] was in terrible conditions but he played really well and got involved a lot. He has tackled well since coming back and had a lot of touches in the first half against Stade on Friday night. We hope he plays again this weekend. He has timed it right to get back into our thoughts. He has done very well for Scotland in the past.”
Fellow centre Duncan Taylor has had an injury ravaged season and is currently out with a head knock suffered two weeks ago.
“Duncan can’t play this weekend but we’ll monitor him and hope he gets clear of his issue with concussion and be available against Wales,” concluded Townsend.
SCOTLAND SQUAD FOR 2018 NATWEST 6 NATIONS
Mark Bennett (Edinburgh Rugby) – 20 caps
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 28 caps
Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors) – 1 cap
Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons) – 1 cap
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 55 caps
Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 28 caps
Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 11 caps
Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 7 caps
Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Greig Laidlaw (ASM Clermont Auvergne) – 58 caps
Sean Maitland (Saracens) – 29 caps
Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) – 2 caps
Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) – 11 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 27 caps
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 39 caps
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) – 21 caps
Nathan Fowles (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
John Barclay CAPTAIN (Scarlets) – 66 caps
Simon Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby) – 5 caps
Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors) – 3 caps
Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh Rugby) – 2 caps
David Denton (Worcester Warriors) – 35 caps
Cornell Du Preez (Edinburgh Rugby) – 5 caps
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) – 18 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 38 caps
Richie Gray (Toulouse) – 64 caps
Luke Hamilton (Leicester Tigers) – 1 cap
Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps
Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons) – 46 caps
Murray McCallum (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – 12 caps
Gordon Reid (London Irish) – 27 caps
D’arcy Rae (Glasgow Warriors) – uncapped
Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby) – 7 caps
George Turner (Glasgow Warriors) – 2 caps
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 15 caps
Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons) – 11 caps
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps