WITH just eight days to go until Scotland’s first World Cup warm-up match against France in Nice on 17th August, the national training squad received an abrupt reminder of just how high the stakes are this morning, when they witnessed four players – centre Nick Grigg, wing Kyle Steyn, scrum-half Henry Pyrgos and flanker Gary Graham – being released back to their clubs.
While their World Cup dream is not completely dead in the water, that quartet know that they are now relying on either injuries to those still in the mix, or for an improbably dramatic drop-off in form, if they are to it to Japan.
“Our original plan was to reduce the squad after the first game, more with contingency in mind in that we could pick up injuries in our first game, but what we have realised over the last couple of weeks is that having big numbers can be really good for a certain period of training but as we get closer to the games we are going to be working closer with those players who are going to play the game so it is not fair on the players who are not getting much training time,” explained head coach Gregor Townsend.
“We had a hit-out on Tuesday against Edinburgh and that has got us to a stage where we are ready to play. There was going to be a cut and it has come a week earlier than planned.”
Townsend was at pains to praise the work the four dropped players have put in this summer and admitted that it was much harder than usual to tell the unlucky individuals that they have missed out.
“It is more like semi-final or final selection at club level when people have worked up for the biggest game of the season,” he said. “This is the biggest thing in four years. To have done eight weeks of training for some of them, it is going to be really disappointing.
“But all the players who are going back to their clubs are in great physical condition and have made a lot of improvements like everybody else in the squad. Injuries [will] happen in the four tests coming up, in our four pool games in the World Cup. It is credit to the quality of the players we have here in that it was a very tough decision and they were tough conversations but we know they will be ready if they need to be called back up.
“It is part of the things you have to do as a coach. The players realise that too. They know there are 44 players here and it will be down to 31 and they are training beside players of real quality and competing hard. If they keep those standards in training up they will be ready to come back in.
Pyrgos’ departure makes it almost inevitable that Greig Laidlaw, Ali Price and George Horne will be the three scrum-halves in Japan.
Centre of excellence
Grigg and Steyn were both options in the centre, but Townsend is still spoiled for choice in that position despite these departures, especially with Duncan Taylor’s return to action after a couple of injury-ravaged seasons going from strength to strength.
“He played in the game on Tuesday behind closed doors, which was a full-blooded training game against Edinburgh, and he came though it well,” explained the coach. “It was his first game in 11 months. He has trained fully with us over the last few weeks. He is ready if selected for that first game.
“We do have players available like Huw Jones and Duncan Taylor who were not available at the end of the Six Nations, and other guys we believe have shown really good form at the end of last season and in training, so there was always going to be a lot of competition for centre,” he added. “We had a lot of centres in our squad, more than any other position.”
“As regards to Huw, he is training really, really well. He is in very good physical shape. He’s getting a lot of involvements from an attacking sense and he’s working really hard on his defence doing extras almost every day. So, he’s doing all he can to play back at the potential he was showing the season before.”
One minor concern is Sam Johnson, who is carrying an injury, but Townsend says he is fairly comfortable with that situation. “He tweaked an ankle in a non-contact session – just stood on Adam Hastings’ foot – but we don’t have any worries about him for the World Cup,” said the coach. “He might just not be available for the first game against France away.”