SCOTLAND’S World Cup preparation schedule started in earnest this week with the squad coming together for a couple of days in Stirling, followed by some team-bonding in the form of scavenger-hunt/cannonball-rally race to Inverness, where they took part in a training session at Highland RFC’s state-of-the-art Canal Park facilities this [Tuesday] morning and then supported a youth Tartan Touch tournament in the afternoon.
With three months still to go until Scotland kick-off their World Cup campaign against Ireland in Yokohama City on 22nd September, things are still pretty relaxed – but head coach Gregor Townsend did express his delight that he has already been able to get through some good work with all of his home-based players bar one being fit and raring to go.
The odd man out is hooker Fraser Brown, who is recovering from a painful looking injury sustained during Glasgow Warriors’ Guinness PRO14 defeat to Leinster at the end of May – and even his situation is not causing too much anxiety at the moment.
“Fraser has had a tidy-up operation around two of his toes because of what happened in the Leinster game,” explained Townsend. “When we saw his reaction, we were initially worried it was his knee, and then something else, so it’s good news and we are confident he’ll be available for the World Cup – but we’ll see how he goes over the next few weeks.”
While Townsend believes that Scotland’s four warm-up matches – against France on 17th and 24th August, and against Georgia on 31st August and 6th September – might come too soon for Brown, he says he wouldn’t be too concerned about throwing the 29-year-old back in at the deep end.
“It will depend on how he goes once he starts running again,” said the coach. “He would have to be very close to being ready by then [the warm-up matches] – we would have to be making a decision on whether to play him in those games – maybe the last one.
“There are two weeks between the last [warm-up] game and the Ireland game. We will know a few weeks before if he is on track and if he’s not we will work with the three other hookers we have here or perhaps look to bring someone else in as a precaution. Just now, we are confident he will come back in time.
“He is a quick healer,” Townsend added. “For example, he had an injury leading into the PRO14 semis and final on his other foot and we thought he would miss those games, but he played in them. He has had a couple of injuries in recent seasons and has played very well on his return. It’s just unfortunate he got injured in the last game.”
The other hookers currently in the squad are Stuart McInally, George Turner and Grant Stewart. Next cab off the rank would likely be Jake Kerr of Leicester Tigers, followed by Dave Cherry of Edinburgh, with Townsend confirming that record cap-holder Ross Ford is not going to come back into contention.
“I’ll leave Ross to say what he wants to do, but I don’t think he’ll be playing rugby beyond this summer. I know they had a big farewell with Edinburgh. At one stage he was looking at continuing playing, but I think he has made the decision that that’s him.”
Taylor makes a good fit
Only players contracted to Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors have been available to train with the squad these last three days, with those based in England and France rested under World Rugby’s Regulation Nine, which governs player release for international rugby.
However, Townsend has been assured that those non-participants are also in pretty good shape – including Saracens utility-back Duncan Taylor, who has had an awful couple of seasons blighted by injury including a double cruciate rupture which has side-lined him since last September.
“He trained the last three weeks at the end of the season full-contact, and the feedback we had from a couple of players and coaches [at Saracens] is that he was looking excellent,” said Townsend, who has had few opportunities to see Taylor in action first hand during his two years at the Scotland helm but is clearly a big fan.
“I’d heard so many positive things about how well he’d played from players and coaches prior to working with him,” he said. “I’ve only worked with him on two tours. On the tour two years ago in Australia, Fiji and Singapore, he was excellent and a big part of our victory in Sydney. Then last summer, he came out on tour with us when he was coming back from injury and he didn’t make it – his back was still not right – but he had a big leadership role off the field, helping the players.
“We know his quality as a player. His work-rate off the ball is outstanding, but also his flexibility – on that tour two years ago he played full-back against Italy, centre against Australia in the first half and moved to winger in the second half, and he can play 12 or 13. So, it is now up to him to go out and grab this opportunity and show at us in training and games that he can perform and be a valuable player for us at the World Cup.
“If he continues his progress, he’ll be one of the guys we’ll look to play in the first or second [warm-up] game, because he’ll be ready to go having not had a long season.”
Still a Gray area
Another player who has had wretched luck with injury is Richie Gray. The 65-times capped second-row is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s most impressive physical specimens when fully fit, bringing a bulk and dynamism to the pack which few other players from this country can replicate, but he has managed only one appearance off the bench in the dark blue since the end of the 2017 Six Nations. He was left out of the initial World Cup squad last month with Townsend explaining that he wants to see more from the 29-year-old as he battles back from the hip injury he picked up last October.
Gray played in Toulouse’s last three matches of this season – including 36 minutes off the bench in Saturday’s Top 14 Grand Final victory over Clermont – but Townsend has still not been moved to find an extra space in the camp for the player.
“He’d definitely be in the mix,” said Townsend, when asked if Gray might get a call should one of the other second-rows pick up an injury. “We know he had a good game [at the weekend], came off the bench and played well.”