GREGOR TOWNSEND has promised that he will cast his selection net even wider than he did during this Autumn Test Series as he looks to pull together a squad capable of competing for the Six Nations title in the New Year – and that could mean adding to the 12 new caps he awarded this November, but may also involve recalling some veterans who he believes aren’t quite ready to be put out to pasture yet despite being well into their 30s.
While the Scotland head coach is clearly encouraged by his team’s record of three wins from four matches during the last month, the performances haven’t been quite as slick as some of the score-lines perhaps suggest. We also have to take into account how Scotland’s northern hemisphere brethren have shaped up during the same period.
England hammered Tonga then beat Australia and South Africa, France won fairly comfortably in the end against Argentina, Georgia and New Zealand, and Ireland beat New Zealand and hammered both Japan and Argentina. Even Wales managed to bounce back from a tough series opener when a depleted side lost heavily against New Zealand to run South Africa close then beat Fiji and Australia.
Like Scotland, all four of those sides will approach 2022 feeling that they have managed to grow their player base at the same time as developing squad cohesion through playing three or four tough matches on back-to-back weekends, so it is going to be fascinating to see how things play out when they are all thrown in against each other in just over two months’ time.
“What pleased me most was the reaction of players when they’ve been given opportunities,” said Townsend. “Players look like they’ve grown when they’ve put a Scotland jersey on.
“Right from the Tonga game, when it was Luke Crosbie, Jamie Hodgson, Rufus McLean, others who played that day, right through to the guys coming off the bench against Japan. It’s really pleasing that the environment they come into, the Test-match arena, brings the best out of them.
“And that’s absolutely given us more depth, with players competing for starting positions. That may not come in the Six Nations. That’s down to them. It may not come in the summer tour [which appears set for Argentina] or in the build-up to the World Cup. But we’ve got more players putting their hands up and making it more difficult to select a team.
“On the field, we’ve shown that we still have the ability to score tries out of nothing, in the South Africa game and Tonga game in particular,” he continued. “But we’ve also developed the power side of our game. We didn’t show it enough against South Africa, but against Japan, our scrum and maul were very good. Our work at the breakdown was also very good against Japan – and it had to improve, because it wasn’t good enough against South Africa.”
It is worth keeping in mind that Scotland came into this series without arguably their first choice hooker in Fraser Brown, their Lions loose-head prop Rory Sutherland, and their top two second-rows in Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings, all because of injury. Cummings returned to face Japan on Saturday, but the others were all confined to the sidelines throughout. That’s a fair bit of experience and firepower for a nation of Scotland’s playing resources to be missing up front.
Meanwhile, behind the scrum, Cameron Redpath may only have one cap to his name, but those 80 minutes against England back in February certainly set the imagination running about whether he could be the missing link in the middle of the park to complement Finn Russell‘s flair and Chris Harris‘ directness.
Townsend is hoping to have all these players back for the Six Nations. “Jonny Gray will be back next week or the week after for Exeter,” he explained. “Cam Redpath is targeting the beginning of January, maybe before that because he feels he’s ahead of schedule. Fraser Brown is looking at being back in the next few weeks – we had better news on him this week. Scott Cummings came back against Japan and played really well, which was a bonus. I’m probably missing players out but those are the guys involved in last year’s Six Nations.
“Ideally we would be able to select from all our players and have no injuries, that’s the first thing we want. A more identifiable group helps cohesion.
“I would say the games against Australia and Japan, we had similar back-lines and a number of positions in the forwards, all similar the team who played France. So there is a thread running through our teams, players who have been selected more regularly.
“[But] we’re going to cast our net more widely in the Six Nations, too, for guys who missed selection this time. Guys like Sean Maitland and WP Nel, we’re very aware that they can play at the highest level. This wasn’t a tournament where we needed to involve them, we wanted to look at other players. But if their form is consistent, as it has been already this season, they’ll come into the mix for our strongest team.”
Townsend also explained that his focus over the next eight weeks will not be all on the Six Nations, with preparation for the 2023 World Cup also needing some attention.
“I’m going to Paris on Monday and then going around France to look at hotels and training venues for the World Cup,” he revealed.