THE world keeps turning, and the most challenging rugby season of any era keeps demanding, so no sooner will Scotland have put their historic first win away to Wales in 18 years to bed than attention will turn to the start of their Nations Cup campaign a week on Friday (14th November) with a trip to Italy. The players will get the start of the coming week off, before retuning to camp on Wednesday evening to begin preparing for the next challenge coming down the road.
As well as Italy, Scotland also take on France and Fiji at home in the pool stage of the Nations Cup, before a play-off against the equivalently placed team in the other pool on 5th December. It is a gruelling schedule of four international matches in as many weeks, and head coach Gregor Townsend will need to rotate his personnel to some extent in order to keep everyone fit and fully competitive. On top of that, he admits that the longer term objective of creating the same sort of depth and competition for places in his squad as the top rugby nations in the world can draw from will also be part of his selection deliberations.
“I don’t think I would use the word ‘experimentation’, but we will have to change the team because there are a couple of injuries and players maybe coming back from injury,” he explained.
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“There are players coming into this tournament whose form merits a start or a chance off the bench. The changes will be because we think these players are good enough to help us move forward or create a bit of competition or depth around a position or two.
“There are people who missed out today who we would like to introduce, whether it’s against Italy, France or Fiji. That’s the long-term aim. If we can have that 30 to 35-man squad where, just like the front row today, the quality is as good coming off the bench as started, then that should make us stronger.
“We will be picking what we believe is the best team to win each weekend,” he added. “We have three different opponents and Italy, France and Fiji, who all play different rugby, so that will be taken into account too in the team we put out against each opponent.”
Among the members of Scotland’s current training squad who have not had a sniff of game time in the two games played so far this Autumn, stand-off Duncan Weir (especially if Finn Russell and Adam Hastings are out), recent returnee from injury centre Sam Johnson, hooker George Turner, fellow centre Nick Grigg, and recent utility back Huw Jones, second-row Richie Gray (if he has off his current concussion), back-five forward Sam Skinner, and maybe loose-head prop Jamie Bhatti, are the most obvious candidates for a chance to reprove their international credentials.
WP Nel was man-of-the-match for Edinburgh in their first win of the season against Scarlets earlier this evening, but at the age of 34 , he is not really a selection for the future. The same goes for London Irish flanker Blair Cowan, who is also 34. At he age of 32, Barbarians bad boy Sean Maitland is entering the twilight of his career but can and will do a job if and when he returns from the coronavirus naughty step.
Second-row Grant Gilchrist and winger Damien Hoyland, have both been ruled out of the series through injury.
From outside the squad, recent Exeter Chiefs double-winner Sam Hidalgo-Clyne surely deserves a closer inspection. Thomas Gordon and Ewan Ashman have trained with the squad but really need some more time in the saddle at club level before becoming serious contenders.
Jaco van der Walt qualifies for Scotland on residency grounds after the Italy game and ahead of the France match, so looks likely to get a shift at stand-off at some point in the next month.
Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, Allan Dell and Magnus Bradbury are all players who have done the business for Scotland in the past, who will be hoping to come back into the frame at some point in the future.
Of the players unavailable to Townsend at the start of Autumn due to injury: Rory Hutchinson has been ruled out for a couple of months with an ankle injury; Duncan Taylor is hoping to be back at some point during the next month after a shoulder injury (but at 31 ad having been through the wars, he perhaps now falls into the same category as Nel); Kyle Steyn and Byron McGuigan are both out long-term recovering from hamstring surgery; Alex Craig had a pectoral injury the last we heard; and Luke Crosbie was expected back about now from a hamstring issue.