GREGOR TOWNSEND named 39 players in his Six Nations training squad yesterday [Wednesday] morning and listed 19 players who were unavailable due to injury. The coach noted that this is about par for the course at this stage of the season in the modern pro rugby, so we shouldn’t get too caught up in the idea that Scotland’s prospects have been unduly handicapped by an injury crisis significantly more severe than our rivals.
Wales, for example, did not list their injured men when Warren Gatland named his squad on Tuesday, but we know that in the back-row alone they are missing Ellis Jenkins, James Davies, Aaron Shingler, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate. Plus, 11 more players – in Ross Moriarty, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, Josh Adams, Rhys Patchell, Jake Ball, Elliot Dee, Cory Hill, Adam Beard, Nicky Smith and Leon Brown – have been named in the squad despite carrying knocks which may well prevent their involvement in the opening match of the championship against France in Paris in just over two weeks’ time.
We should also recognise that several of the individuals on Scotland’s injured list would not ordinarily be selected ahead of players who have been named in the squad. Rory Sutherland, for example, is behind Allan Dell in the Edinburgh loose-head pecking order and would not be guaranteed international selection ahead of Glasgow duo Jamie Bhatti and Alex Allan. Lewis Carmichael’s day will come but he is still some way short of Jonny Gray, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner and Tim Swinson in terms of experience and general readiness to man the engine-room in a full-blown Six Nations clash. Zander Fagerson is certainly a front-liner at tight-head prop, but Jon Welsh is most definitely not. Damian Hoyland would not be selected ahead of any of Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland, Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham or Lee Jones on the wing, and neither would Byron McGuigan for that matter.
Having said all that, there is no denying that injuries have complicated things for Townsend and his coaching team as they seek to plot a successful path through the next two months of high-octane international rugby, with the challenge faced in Scotland more acute because of the smaller player base. Back-row and hooker, in particular, are areas of concern.
The absence of Fraser Brown and George Turner, through knee and ankle injuries respectively, means that Scotland will go into the championship with either Dave Cherry, Jake Kerr or Grant Stewart understudying Stuart McInally in the middle of the front-row. All three are in the fledgling stages of their senior professional careers, and Stewart is the only one who has been anywhere near the international squad before, when he was a late call-up to last summer’s tour.
One of them will face a sink or swim moment against Italy on 2nd February, and most probably against Ireland the following week, but then the pressure should loosen with both Brown and Turner expected to re-enter the fray.
“That’s the likely scenario,” confirmed Townsend. “Any better would be a huge bonus and they would have to do something over the next couple of weeks in terms of their rehab for it to happen, any worse would be a disappointment.”
Similarly, the absence of John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, David Denton, Matt Fagerson, Luke Hamilton and Blade Thomson stretches the back-row pretty thin, but Townsend indicated that at least Bradbury and Denton have a chance of coming into contention for the France game on 23rd February.
“There’s a few who have had head injuries you’d hope would be back the next two or three weeks but it’s hard to put a rehab scale on,” said Townsend. “Dave Denton is cleared to return from his head injury but picked up a hamstring injury, he should be back that week.
“There are a number of players we believe will be back playing for their clubs the week after the Ireland game. Magnus Bradbury, Zander, the hookers we mentioned, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, Byron McGuigan, there’s actually more than six or seven [who could come back into the frame]. If things go well, that’s great news for them, and it would add to our selection conversations. It might be difficult for some of those players to get back in the squad if they’ve been out four to five months, just on the back of one game, but it will be boost knowing they are available.”
Another of those players on the precipice of a return is second-row Richie Gray, although given the diabolical luck he has endured in the last two years there is bound to be a cautious approach taken towards getting him back up to speed.
“Richie’s trained fully the last two weeks so he’s targeting coming back the week before the Italy game, that’s a week on Saturday, if all goes well in training the next two weeks,” explained Townsend. “Again, he’s not played since pre-season, so it’ll take him two or three games to get back to full match fitness for his club never mind international rugby, but it’s pleasing and encouraging to know he might be back in the next few weeks.
“It’ll depend on how he reacts to full training and playing with his club. His club are in charge of his care and whether he’s selected. I suppose the other area is that club rugby shuts down for a couple of weeks both in France and in Scotland, so after next week’s game he’ll have the opportunity to go back and train, but he won’t get any matches for a couple of weeks until the week after we play Ireland. We’re all hoping he comes back and plays. Even though we have very good depth at second row, Richie’s our most capped forward. When he plays well he’s a huge asset to us.”
One man who has come back into contention and will be raring to go from the outset is flanker John Hardie, who has not played for Scotland since June 2017, and served a three-month SRU imposed suspension at Edinburgh between November 2017 and January 2018 for alleged cocaine use. He left the club last summer and had a period without a contract but has been pulling up trees since joining Newcastle Falcons at the end of October, initially on a short-term arrangement before agreeing a two-year deal last week.
Townsend stated the 30-year-old New Zealand born breakaway’s chequered past was not a consideration when deciding to include Hardie in this squad.
“No, not at all, he hasn’t been involved in squads with us because of injury,” the coach insisted. “He came back to Newcastle after being out training with Clermont around the time of the November Tests and he’s played really well over the last few weeks.”
Two back-rowers who are not likely to be involved are the ultra-experienced Barclay and New Zealand born Thomson, who was expected to make his international bow during the November series but picked up a concussion playing for the Scarlets against Edinburgh at the start of that month and has not yet managed to return to action.
“Blade has not recovered from his head injury, he was doing some non-contact the last few weeks but is still feeling symptoms,” said Townsend. “You have to allow your body to heal at the pace it needs to heal at.
“John is not on that list that’s due to come back before the France game. He may come back towards the end of the 6 Nations, I think Richard Cockerill has already mentioned March as a date. That’s going to be too late for him to play for us.”
SCOTLAND SQUAD FOR SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP
Backs (17): Chris Dean (Edinburgh), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (captain, Clermont Auvergne), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors).
Forwards (22): Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors), Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), David Cherry (Edinburgh), Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), John Hardie (Newcastle Falcons), Jake Kerr (Leicester Tigers), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh) Willem Nel (Edinburgh), D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Grant Stewart (Glasgow Warriors), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Unavailable through injury: John Barclay (Edinburgh), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Lewis Carmichael (Edinburgh), David Denton (Leicester Tigers), Cornell Du Preez (Worcester Warriors), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Luke Hamilton (Edinburgh), Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Blade Thomson (Scarlets), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons).