Skinner and Thomson add real grunt to Townsend’s Scotland squad

Three uncapped players named in 40-man training group ahead of November Test schedule

Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend has named three uncapped players in his 40-man training squad for his team's Autumn Tests series against Wales, Fiji, South Africa and Argentina ***Image: © Craig Watson -***

IT wouldn’t be a Gregor Townsend national squad announcement if there wasn’t at least one selection from left-field in there. On this occasion it was Sam Skinner.

We suspected there might be a big second-row from Exeter Chiefs included in the training group ahead of next month’s four match series, but Ollie Atkins – the Australian-born former Edinburgh player, capped once by Scotland A in 2017 – was who we had in mind. In the event, it was Atkins’ partner in the Sandy Park boiler-house who got the nod.

“Sam got into the Exeter team and established himself last year. I know he is in the leadership group down there. He calls the line-outs, he is an excellent player with a big future ahead of him,” explained Townsend.

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“We’d known about his Scottish qualification for a number of years as he was involved in the Exiles programme as a youngster, but it was a message from someone who was speaking to his dad [telling us] that nothing would make his dad more proud than Sam playing for Scotland [that alerted us]. So, we’ve been tracking him really closely [since then].

“We’d have liked to have taken him on tour but Sam didn’t think it was the right time. He wanted to start the season and earn his place and he’s done that. He’s a line-out leader for one of the best packs in Europe, his decision-making is excellent and he runs really good lines, so we’re delighted he’s committed to Scotland.”

Asked if the former England Under-20 cap’s decision not to tour might be taken as an indication that he wasn’t initially sold on the idea of switching allegiances, Townsend insisted that it was more a matter of timing.

“He is a man of integrity and wanted to make sure he made the right decision in the right circumstances. He wanted to earn his place. He was aware that everybody was available for November while in the summer there were certain players that were going to be rested,” said the coach.

“I am delighted that at the start of this season, when we continued these conversations, he was committed and really excited about his decision. I know that it will make his family really proud and he is looking forward to meeting up with the rest of our guys.

“This is a big decision for a player to make,” Townsend continued. “Playing for a club in England, there are repercussions for no longer being English qualified. It’s great that he’s had an opportunity to think about it and realise over the summer that’s what he wanted to do. I don’t think he believed he’d be selected in a [Scotland] squad and he’s delighted he has been announced in it. He’s earned it with how he’s played.”

Townsend added that Skinner would have been involved this November even if Richie Gray had been in the frame.

Gray missed Scotland’s summer tour and the start of the current season with a hip injury before making his comeback for Toulouse against Agen in the French Top 14 two weekends ago. The 65-times capped lock managed 60-minutes in that game, but missed Saturday’s Champions Cup clash against Bath, and it was reported in the French press on Monday that he now requires surgery which will keep him out for around four months.

“It’s the other hip. He had the chance to rest it in the summer. He had a pre-season game and was much better but then his other hip flared up and he missed the first six games of the season. He played two weeks ago and, unfortunately, even though he played well for 60 minutes, the reaction at training the next week means that he needs to have surgery,” said Townsend.

“It’s a blow for him, a blow for us, he’s our most experienced forward after Ross Ford and John Barclay, who is not in the squad [injured]. But we believe the surgery will be a success and he’ll be back around Six Nations time.

“Obviously, there is a big period of rugby from Six Nations on to World Cup. We’re backing him and supporting him to come back to the level we know he’s capable of.”

Skinner is one of three uncapped players named in the 40-man training squad which was announced yesterday ahead of next month’s four match Test series. Scarlets back-row Blade Thomson and Glasgow Warriors centre Sam Johnson were the other two.

Neither Skinner, Thomson or any of the other non-Scotland based players in the squad will be available for the team’s first match of the series against Wales in Cardiff on 3rd November because it falls outside World Rugby’s international window.

Meet the new boys –

Sam Skinner – Age: 23 – Club: Exeter Chiefs – Position: second-row/back-row – Height: 6ft 5ins – Weight: 17st 6lbs – Previous honours: England Under-20s – Place of birth: Exeter – Qualification: father Peter is from Ayr

Thought he had missed the professional rugby boat when he finished school in 2013 without being spotted by an academy. Joined Taunton in National League Two South and ten games into the 2014-15 season, Exeter Chiefs came calling with a contract offer to join their academy. Made his first-team debut in the LV=Cup against Gloucester in November 2014 and his Premiership debut against Northampton Saints the following April.

Made four appearances off the bench during the Chiefs’ Premiership winning 2016-17 season, and established himself as a first team regular whilst helping the club finish second last season with ten starts and 12 substitute appearances. Is now a member of the leadership team at Sandy Park and calls the line-outs.

Between 2014 and 2017, he combined life as a pro rugby player with studying for a degree at the University of Exeter, whom he captained to BUCS Championship success in 2016. He graduated with a 1st in business and economics.

Blade Thomson – Age: 27 – Club: Scarlets – Position: back-row (second-row in a crisis) – Height: 6ft 6ins – Weight: 16st 10lbs – Previous honours: New Zealand Under-20s and Maori All Blacks – Place of birth: Auckland – Qualification: paternal grandfather Robert is from Wishaw

A rangy, athletic number eight or blindside flanker with soft hands. Began his career at Taranaki on New Zealand’s North Island, was introduced into the Hurricanes training squad in 2012 and joined the senior squad in 2013. Was part of the New Zealand Under-20s team which won the 2010 Junior World Championship. Was emerging as a credible contender for Kieran Read’s All Black number eight jersey around 2015 until a shoulder issue started to limit his game time, and he missed the 2017 Super Rugby season due to reconstruction surgery. Joined the Scarlets during the summer, after reportedly turning down an approach from Dave Rennie at Glasgow.


Blade Thomson makes a filthy offload then gets back in the game to finish off a wonder try for the Hurricanes during the last Super Rugby season

Sam Johnson – Age: 25 – Club: Glasgow Warriors – Position: centre – Height: 6ft 1ins – Weight: 16st 1lbs – Previous honours: Queensland Schoolboys and Australia Schoolboys A – Place of birth: Dysart (Queensland, Australia) – Qualification: residency

Started his senior rugby union career with GPS in Brisbane before switching codes to play rugby league with Gold Coast Titans under-20s and feeder-club Tweed Heads Seagulls in New South Wales. Returned to the 15-man code for season 2013-14 and joined the Queensland Reds’ wider training squad, before becoming a full member of the squad the following year and making two Super Rugby appearances. Missed the end of that season due to shoulder constructive surgery and moved to Scotland to join the Warriors in the summer of 2015, initially on a two-year contract until the summer of 2017.

After a slow start to his time in Scotland as battled to get back to match fitness after that surgery, he established himself as a frontline player for the club last season in a position where there is serious strength in depth, with Scotland internationalists Alex Dunbar, Huw Jones, Pete Horne and Nick Grigg all vying for game time. He was voted player’s player of the year at the end of the campaign.

Was hospitalised with a head injury sustained during Glasgow Warriors’ pre-season match against Northampton Saints at the end of August, and between that and a knee injury he has not played a competitive match for the club yet this season, although head coach Dave Rennie said on Tuesday that he is in the frame for Sunday’s Champions Cup clash against the Blues in Cardiff.

The squad –

Loose-head props –

Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors) – 4 caps
Allan Dell (Edinburgh) – 13 caps
Gordon Reid (London Irish) – 32 caps *

Hookers –

Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) – 34 caps
Ross Ford (Edinburgh) – 110 caps
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh) – 18 caps
George Turner (Glasgow Warriors) – 5 caps

Tight-head props –

Simon Berghan (Edinburgh) – 10 caps
Murray McCallum (Edinburgh) – 3 caps
Willem Nel (Edinburgh) – 22 caps

Second-rows –

Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh) – 25 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 43 caps
Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs) – uncapped *
Ben Toolis (Edinburgh) – 12 caps

Back-rows –

Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh) – 4 caps
David Denton (Leicester Tigers) – 42 caps *
Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) – 1 cap
Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps
Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh) – 2 caps
Blade Thomson (Scarlets) – uncapped *
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh) – 20 caps
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 37 caps

Scrum-halves –

George Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 2 caps
Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne) – 63 caps *
Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) – 17 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Edinburgh) – 27 caps

Stand-offs –

Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors) – 3 caps
Finn Russell (Racing 92) – 37 caps *

Centres –

Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 28 caps
Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons) – 4 caps *
Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 35 caps
Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors) – uncapped
Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 16 caps
Matt Scott (Edinburgh) – 39 caps

Wings –

Dougie Fife (Edinburgh) – 8 caps
Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors) – 9 caps
Sean Maitland (Saracens) – 34 caps *
Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks) – 5 caps *
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 43 caps

Full-backs –

Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh) – 5 caps

*Exile player who can’t play first Test against Wales on 3rdNovember as it is outside the international window

  • Edinburgh youngsters Darcy Graham and Luke Crosbie are also training with the squad.

Not considered through injury: John Barclay, Mark Bennett, Lewis Carmichael (all Edinburgh), Cornell du Preez (Worcester Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens).

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About David Barnes 4028 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.