DURING the last 18 months, Sione Tuipulotu has featured in 15 of the national team’s 17 matches, starting 14 of those games (he came off the bench in the 2022 Autumn Test against Fiji), and missing only the World Cup warm-up match against Italy and the World Cup pool match against minnows Romania, So, it is hard to imagine any scenario whereby the 26-year-old midfielder is not among the names announced in Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations training squad tomorrow [Tuesday] afternoon.
But the player himself – who has continued to impress at club level with Glasgow Warriors this season, scoring a fine try in the team’s agonising Champions Cup loss to Exeter – is cautious when it is put to him that his selection is a mere formality.
“I’ve been in the squad when Finn hasn’t been selected [and] if he’s not getting the call-up for whatever reason, nobody is safe!” Tuipulotu reasons, with near impeccable logic.
“It’s crazy that the Six Nations is almost back around,” he added. “Because the hurt from the World Cup has lasted so long, it feels to me like I’ve blinked and the Six Nations is starting. That’s good, because you want to get back on the field and prove something with Scotland.”
There will certainly be a bit more competition for a spot in Scotland’s midfield on match-days during this coming international window than there was when Australia-born Tuipulotu broke into the team back in November 2021.
Chris Harris has fallen down the pecking order since those giddy days when he was a British and Irish Lions Test player in 2021 but should be there or thereabouts on account of his experience and reliability, Rory Hutchinson‘s form for Northampton continues to raise questions about why he has managed to add only two more caps to his tally since being something of a surprise omission from the 2019 World Cup squad, while Mark Bennett and Matt Currie will fancy themselves as outside bets.
Cam Redpath appears to have – touch wood – put behind him the injury travails which caused there to be a year between his first cap in February 2021 and his second cap in February 2022, then nine months between that second cap and his third in November 2021. He is in fine form at Bath at the moment where he has forged a formidable 10-12 partnership with Finn Russell.
Meanwhile, Stafford McDowall has resurrected his career under Franco Smith at Glasgow Warriors during the last season and a half to emerge as a serious contender to add more international honours to the debut cap he picked up against Italy during the summer.
And Huw Jones was also a stand-out performer during the 2023 Six Nations, and has enjoyed a new lease of since returning to Glasgow two summers ago and recovering from the back injury which sidelined him during the start of the 2022-23 campaign. He is currently being deployed on the wing by Warriors due to spate of back-three injuries but Tuipulotu doesn’t believe that should count against his club and international team-mate.
“The job he’s done on the wing for us is testament to his character,” insisted Tuipulotu, who qualifies for Scotland through a grandmother from Greenock. “With all the injuries we have copped, and the fact that Stafford has been playing a lot, the way Shuggie has handled it and his performances have been so good.
“He won a couple of high balls against Exeter [on Saturday], and for a centre to come and chase kicks like that, I know I couldn’t do it. It just shows his versatility and class as a player.”
While Tuipulotu clearly wouldn’t fancy a stint on the wing for Scotland, he stresses that he would equally comfortable at inside-centre – where he has played most of is his international rugby – or outside-centre.
“I’ve played both midfield positions my whole life,” he reasoned. “I always feel that when I play 13, my role is still like a 12. It doesn’t matter what number is on my back, I just contribute in the way I believe I get picked to do, and that’s be physical on both sides of the ball.”
Tomorrow’s squad announcement will bring the start of the Six Nations in just under three weeks’ time into focus, but Tuipulotu knows that there is a more pressing matter needing to be dealt with first in the shape of Warriors’ final Champions Cup pool match against Toulon at Scotstoun on Friday. It is a game his team must win if they want to book their place in the last 16 of Europe’s top club competition.
The fact that Glasgow were bullied out of last year’s Challenge Cup Final by the French team will inevitably provide extra spice for Tuipulotu, his team-mates and the Warriors fans, although he is reluctant to dwell too much on that.
“Franco has spoken about it, but for me it’s just about building on the season heading into next week and trying to progress in this competition,” Tuipulotu explained. “I don’t have a vendetta against Toulon or whatever, it’s just that they’re our next opponent and we want to win that game to progress in the competition and keep going with our season.
“That’s my mindset anyway. Heading into these European games, I have been really motivated to put my hand up in terms of my emotion. I’m not lacking any motivation heading into this tournament, and if selected I know my mind is in the right place in terms of contributing.”