THE Scotland coaching team remain confident that Jonny Gray, Sam Johnson and Ryan Wilson will all be available to play against Italy, despite having brought in Rob Harley, Alex Dunbar and Luke Crosbie into the squad as cover for them. By contrast, Edinburgh openside Hamish Watson saw a specialist yesterday about the hand injury he sustained on Friday, and has dropped out of the squad, with no word yet on when he is likely to return. Matt Smith – like Crosbie, uncapped – has come in to cover for him.
Johnson, who missed the early part of the current campaign after being concussed in a pre-season friendly against Northampton, was concussed again in Glasgow’s defeat by Saracens on Saturday. But assistant Scotland coach Mike Blair explained yesterday that the news on the centre had already improved.
“Sam failed his initial HIA and didn’t go back on, but straight after the game they do another test and he passed it fine,” Blair said. “He’s had no more symptoms, so we expect him to push through fairly quickly.”
Gray sustained shoulder damage in the Champions Cup tie at Allianz Park, and although it is not the first time the lock has experienced such a problem, Blair and his colleagues are optimistic about his being available for the start of the Six Nations Championship. “We believe it’s something that’s manageable. We didn’t have any contact today, but he trained pretty fully in the session there, so lots of movement.
“He was just struggling in a couple of collisions and stuff in the game on Saturday and felt he wasn’t able to play right at the top of his game. I wouldn’t call it a precautionary thing, but he was struggling a little bit and wasn’t able to play to the level he would be used to.”
Wilson also took a shoulder knock, but the coaches are as confident about him as they are about Johnson and Gray. “They’ve got bumps and bruises and we’ll obviously wait to see how they clear up, but at the moment they’re not something we’d be hugely concerned about.”
Officially, Watson is only ‘suspected’ to have broken a bone in his hand, but Blair left little or no room for optimism in his case. “He’s seeing a specialist at the moment, and we’ve not had an update. We don’t expect him for the first couple of games. It’s suspected broken, but we don’t have the official report yet.”
While Smith is a specialist openside, Crosbie can play across the back row, and Jamie Ritchie is as able to play at 7 as he is at 6, the expected absence of Watson may well open the door for John Hardie. The 30-year-old recently signed a two-year deal with Newcastle Falcons, having earlier failed to strike an agreement with French club Clermont largely because of restrictions on the number of foreign players.
“It’s great to have John back,” Blair continued. “He was back in the squad this time last year and guys love the energy he gives off in defence. He loves flying off the line, tackling people and that brings a great energy to the squad as well. People enjoy his ability to play the guitar and the fact he’s always got a smile on his face as well, so he’s a good addition to the squad.
“He was unfortunate with what happened at Clermont. From my understanding they were keen to keep him on, but because of regulations they kept a young French player instead. With Newcastle he had his opportunity and Dean Richards liked what he saw, which is very understandable and it’s great that he’s nailed that down.”
While most of the Glasgow and Edinburgh contingent in the Scotland squad will have a well-earned rest this weekend after the rigours of the Champions Cup, some players who have not had as much rugby over the last few weeks will be encouraged to play in the Warriors’ home game on Friday against the Dragons or Edinburgh’s match at the Southern Kings the following day. Looseheads such as Jamie Bhatti and Allan Dell seem obvious cases, given they have played second fiddle to Oli Kebble and Pierre Schoeman respectively.
“There’ll be a balance in guys going back to their clubs and guys not, which will be released tomorrow or the next day,” Blair explained. “There is a blend. Some positions we might want to protect a little bit, but some guys need a little bit of rugby, so there’ll be a mix and match.”