GREGOR TOWNSEND will announce his Six Nations training squad – expected to be 40-strong based on recent precedent – tomorrow [Tuesday] afternoon, ahead of Scotland kicking off their tournament away to England on 4th February.
The selection process won’t have been an easy task given that several key players are on the long-term injury list with return dates just after the tournament kicks-off.
Will he gamble on the likes of Zander Fagerson making it back in time to feature in the first two rounds of games? Or will he view these matches as an opportunity to give some fringe players valuable time in the saddle?
Four regular TOL correspondents attempt to second-guess the national coach below.
THE Zander Fagerson situation is particularly problematic given how important he has been in recent seasons. The tight-head prop – who injured his hamstring in early December and was ruled out of action until February – has started 16 out of Scotland’s last 17 matches in the No 3 jersey, and he came off the bench in the other (against Wales during the 2022 Six Nations).
It is remarkable that while Townsend has been so keen to juggle his stand-off options in recent months in search of a credible back-up/alternative to Finn Russell, he has allowed his scrum to become so dependent on one individual.
The situation is complicated further by news coming out of Scotstoun that Murphy Walker, Fagerson’s Glasgow Warriors club-mate, will be out of action for months rather than weeks as initially anticipated due to a bulging disc in his neck. The 23-year-old impressed off the bench in his first two international appearances during the Autumn and this Six Nations would have been an ideal opportunity to really establish himself ahead of the World Cup.
That leaves WP Nel as the likely anchor of Scotland’s scrum against the might of a giant English pack. The 36-year-old has been a fine servant to the national team since his debut back in 2015, but he is no longer the force he was during his prime in either the tight or loose .
The other options in this crucial position are Simon Berghan of Glasgow Warriors, Javan Sebastian of Scarlets or Darcy Rae of Bath, who are all playing semi-regularly for their respective clubs and have all been capped in the past without really looking like the real deal at international level.
Townsend has also had to deal with two outstanding openside flankers being out of action, with Hamish Watson sidelined since the Autumn following multiple concussions and Rory Darge out of action since September with a serious ankle injury. While all three of the starting back-row for Scotland’s last Test match against Argentina in late November – Jamie Ritchie at openside, Matt Fagerson at blindside and Jack Dempsey at No 8 – are fit and raring to go, the coach may choose to reward Luke Crosbie’s strong start to the season with Edinburgh. The thrice-capped 25-year-old missed his team’s win over Castres last weekend due to a concussion he is expected to be fit again to face Saracens this coming Sunday.
Second-row Scott Cummings, who has been out since October with a foot injury, is the other notable absentee in the pack, although the availability and form of Jonny and Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist and Sam Skinner means that his absence will not be as keenly felt as it would have been when he was a virtual ever-present in the team at the start of this World Cup cycle. Uncapped Callum Hunter-Hill has a meniscus tear.
Behind the scrum, winger Darcy Graham – who was arguably Scotland’s best performer during the Six Nations – isn’t expected back from a knee injury until mid-February, while Kyle Rowe hasn’t played since rupturing his ACL against Argentina during the summer and isn’t due to be fit to play until mid-February/early-March. Should we read anything into Ollie Smith starting (and playing well apart from his early yellow) on the wing for Glasgow on Saturday evening?
Forwards: P Schoeman, R Sutherland, J Bhatti, E Ashman, D Cherry, G Turner, S Berghan, Z Fagerson, W Nel, J Sebastian, G Gilchrist, R Gray, J Gray, S Skinner, G Young, J Bayliss, M Bradbury, A Christie, L Crosbie, J Dempsey, M Fagerson, J Ritchie.
Backs: B White, A Price, G Horne, F Russell, B Healy, C Savala, B Kinghorn, M Bennett, C Harris, H Jones, C Redpath, S McDowall, S Tuipulotu, S Maitland, D van der Merwe, K Steyn, S Hogg, O Smith.
In recent seasons, Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend has announced a larger squad than what used to be the norm, partly, one assumes, to open the eyes of young talent to what is required at the top level, and partly to create a bit of competition for places in the run-up to choosing the match-day 23.
We could speculate on just about every position but in the end it is likely that the squad selection will mirror that of the Autumn Series. As in November, the stand-off slot will present the biggest problem for Townsend but for different reasons to the autumn. What we know for sure is that Scotland’s playmaker, Finn Russell, received a red card at the weekend and that Adam Hastings has been ruled out because of injury. Moreover, Ross Thompson is out of the scene right now and his replacement at Glasgow, Tom Jordan, is 18 months short of achieving residential qualification.
Russell was sent-off at the weekend after collecting a second card but, crucially, for a technical offence rather than dangerous play. As a result, Russell should not suffer a game ban and especially so in the light of Owen Farrell being cleared (after what seemed a bending of the rules) to play against Scotland following a red card for dangerous play.
The absence of Hastings and a slight (and only slight) question mark hovering over Russell raiseS the obvious question: who else for the number 10 jersey? Many hoped we’d see Northampton’s Fin Smith come into the squad but it seems England have won that skirmish.
There’s the prospect of Munster’s Ben Healey. He, too, could become a useful addition to the Scotland squad. But Townsend might prefer to stick with Blair Kinghorn, whose form has been at times brilliant and other times, less than brilliant. Elsewhere in the backs, could Rory Hutchinson of Northampton Saints make a come-back, along with Sean Maitland, who is playing well for Saracens. And with Darcy Graham still in rehab, Kyle Steyn has a strong chance of making the final 23.
And how about Fraser Dingwall, the Northampton Saints centre, as a wildcard selection?
In the forwards, there are fitness worries over Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Murphy Walker and Hamish Watson, all of which will cause selection conundrums for Townsend. Simon Berghan could reheat his international career and at hooker there is a good choice of cover should Brown be absent. Expect Ewan Ashman and Dave Cherry to figure and perhaps a place for Patrick Harrison given his recent displays off the bench for Edinburgh.
In the second-row, Scott Cummings is unlikely to recover from a foot injury in time to make the squad, so might there be interest in Callum Hunter-Hill, part of the Saracens make-up this season? Meanwhile in the back-row Hamish Watson must be a real doubt given his long absence from the Edinburgh team but that still leaves Townsend with choices for the open-side position. On the other side of the scrum, Sam Skinner is an outside bet but given his experience in the second row his versatility points to a place on the bench.
Forwards: J Bhatti, P Schoeman, R Sutherland, E Ashman, F Brown, D Cherry, P Harrison, G Turner, S Berghan, Z Fagerson W Nel, G Gilchrist, J Gray, R Gray, S Skinner, J Bayliss, A Christie, L Crosbie, J Dempsey, M Fagerson, N Haining, J Ritchie.
Backs: G Horne, A Price, B White, B Healy, F Russell, C Savala, F Dingwall, C Redpath, M Bennett, C Harris, R Hutchinson, S Tuipulotu, B Kinghorn, S Maitland, K Steyn, D van der Merwe, S Hogg, O Smith,
I’m expecting a lot less drama overall this time round, and in particular when it comes to the stand-off position, however Adam Hastings’ injury and Edinburgh’s capture of the Scottish-qualified Ben Healy from Munster does create an interesting sub-plot.
Finn Russell will no doubt be first-choice 10, and despite a difficult second season of The Blair Switch Project, I expect Kinghorn to be named in the squad as a stand-off, along with Ross Thompson if he recovers from his ankle injury in time. However, does Kinghorn’s vesatility open up a spot for another specialist fly-half? Reports from across the water say that Townsend had a part to play in securing Healy’s switch of allegiance, so he may want him involved, and capped, as soon as possible.
On the flip-side, Townsend may not want to over promote the young fly-half, but who dares enter the mind of Townsend?
In the other half-back position, I don’t imagine we’ll see any changes from incumbent Ali Price, George Horne, and Ben White, but in the centres there is a plethora of in-form options.
Chris Dean and Stafford McDowell may be in the form of their lives but both are likely to miss out. After his impressive Autumn in dark blue, Sione Tuipulotu has continued in the same vein for Glasgow, for whom Sam Johnson returned with a try-scoring performance against Perpignan, and where Huw Jones has been carving it up, so I expect all those three Warriors to be in alongside Gloucester’s Chris Harris and Bath’s Cameron Redpath. There might not be room for Mark Bennett.
In the back three, Stuart Hogg – assuming he gets past his heel issue – and the ever-improving Ollie Smith will be the 15 options, but Darcy Graham’s injury is a massive disappointment seeing as he was one of the best performing wingers in world rugby during the Autumn. Fortunately, Duhan van der Merwe should be ready based on what Mike Blair said pre-Zebre last week.
Will an extra name be added? Rufus McLean, Damien Hoyland, Kyle Steyn and maybe even Kinghorn could be called to fill the Darcy-sized gap, however Sean Maitland’s never retired and is in decent form for table-topping Saracens.
To the pack, loose-head options of Rory Sutherland, Pierre Schoeman and Jamie Bhatti are as good as saved in the draft squad template, as is George Turner. Ewan Ashman is the one for future, while, although Fraser Brown was looking good, his latest brain injury suffered against the Stormers may put Dave Cherry in the third spot. Possible ‘bolter;, depending on squad size, is Patrick Harrison.
Tight-head is the area with least depth and, possibly, greatest concern. With Lion Zander Fagerson struggling, there’s veteran WP Nel, then a bit of a drop-off. Rookie Murphy Walker – currently on Glasgow’s injured list – the perenially selected but lesser spotted Javan Sebastian’s fit, and Simon Berghan has played well of late for Glasgow, usually coming off the bench.
Multi-sided options are Oli Kebble and Murray McCallum, but the former is currently listed as injured and seems out of favour with Townsend, while the latter has only just landed a club, following the demise of Worcester Warriors. Could Darcy Rae of Bath enter the reckoning if Fagerson doesn’t make it for round one?
Hamish Watson is the big-name loss in the back-row, and Rory Darge looks likely to miss out the first couple of rounds at least, so the definites and likely starting back-row will be captain Jamie Ritchie at seven, Matt Fagerson at six and Jack Demspey at eight, leaving a likely three squad spots. Andy Christie of Saracens can cover all across, but there’s definitely room for one of Josh Bayliss and Magnus Bradbury, if not both. And then do you have room for Luke Crosbie and the returning Tom Gordon at openside? Nick Haining has often saved his best for Townsend as well.
The Richie Gray-naissance continues, and he should start come February alongside Grant Gilchrist, or, his younger brother Jonny. Sam Skinner, who can also covers six, and Jamie Hodgson complete the squad if Scott Cummings isn’t ready.
Forwards: J Bhatti, P Schoeman, R Sutherland, E Ashman, D Cherry, P Harrison, G Turner, Z Fagerson, S Berghan, W Nel, D Rae, G Gilchrist, J Gray, R Gray, J Hodgson, S Skinner, J Bayliss, A Christie, J Dempsey, T Gordon, M Fagerson, J Ritchie.
Backs: G Horne, A Price, B White, B Kinghorn, F Russell, R Thompson, C Harris, S Johnson, H Jones, C Redpath, S Tuipolotu, D Hoyland, R McLean, S Maitland, K Steyn, D van der Merwe, S Hogg, O Smith.
The “I did not see that one coming, AT ALL” contender: Gus Warr of Sale Sharks at scrum-half
Gregor Townsend heads into this year’s Six Nations tournament with headaches aplenty due to injuries to key players, including to a number of his British and Irish Lions contingent, so squad depth is going to be tested in what will be a crucial tournament in the lead-up to the World Cup later this year.
Full-back and former captain Stuart Hogg has been resting a heel injury he picked up against the Bulls and missed Exeter’s trip to South Africa which will certainly cause some worries as he races to recover in time. Meanwhile, Darcy Graham, one of the form wingers in world rugby during the Autumn, has been out of action since early December with a knee injury and there has been no update since his comeback target was initially revealed as February, while Duhan Van der Merwe has been out to action in recent weeks with a niggling ankle injury.
A recall for Kyle Steyn would provide Scotland with a solid option on the wing, with the Glasgow captain finding some impressive form this year. Blair Kinghorn will be in consideration for a slot in the back-three and Sean Maitland continues to perform at a high level for Saracens with five tries to his name this season and would certainly provide an assured, consistent option, especially with away trips to Paris and Twickenham win the schedule.
The centres are a different story with Townsend and company spoiled for choice. Cameron Redpath and Chris Harris are delivering week-in and week-out in the English Premiership but it is the recent ‘Huwipolotu’ link-up which has got Scotstoun pulses racing. Huw Jones has recaptured the form that made him one of Scotland’s most prolific players while the rising star that is Sione Tuipolotu has encapsulated everything that defines this new Glasgow side. Pace and power aplenty complemented by an impressive handling and kicking game puts him in contention for either of the centre berths.
With Adam Hastings injured and Kinghorn likely required in the back three, Edinburgh new boy Ben Healy may well receive his first selection alongside superstar Finn Russell, as well as someone like Charlie Savala or Ross Thompson to play the development third-string role.
In the pack, Townsend will be hoping for good news on Hamish Watson (concussion) and Rory Darge (ankle) but has a plethora of eager back-row options waiting in the wings. Luke Crosbie, missed Edinburgh’s win over Castres on Sunday due to a head knock but is expected back for Saracens next week, has led from the front at club level this season with his abrasive ball-carrying, meaning he will certainly challenge the likely starting trio of captain Ritchie, Matt Fagerson and Jack Dempsey.
Andy Christie, at 23-year’s old, is starting regularly for Premiership topping Saracens and would bring a huge amount of athleticism to either flank, with other options including Josh Bayliss, who has been a stand-out in a struggling Bath side, as well as Magnus Bradbury, who has recently returned to the Bristol side
However, it is tight-head that will be the greatest headache of all. The mood music is that Zander Fagerson is making good progress recovering from his hamstring injury, but the England game is only three weeks away and Townsend will not want to rush such an important player back. WP Nel, while a fantastic servant to the national team, may not be best placed to play 60 or 70 minutes of Test rugby aged 36. Murphy Walker would seem like the next cab of the rank but is currently out of action with a neck injury. A slightly left-field option would be the return of Darcy Rae who has been playing regularly for Bath.
With four warm-up fixtures plus this tournament to go before Scotland kick-off their World Cup campaign against South Africa in the Stade Velodrome, the importance on building depth is paramount so these selection headaches may end up being very useful to the national side in the medium to long term.
Forwards: P Schoeman, R Sutherland, J Bhatti, G Turner, E Ashman, J Matthews, W Nel, D Rae, J Sebastian, R Gray, J Gray, S Skinner, G Gilchrist, J Hodgson, G Young, L Crosbie, J Ritchie, M Fagerson, J Dempsey, M Bradbury, A Christie, J Bayliss
Backs: B White, A Price, G Horne, F Russell, B Healy, C Savala, H Jones, S Tuipolotu, C Harris, C Redpath, M Bennett, R Hutchinson, B Kinghorn, K Steyn, O Smith, R McLean, S Maitland, S Hogg.