WHILE the ‘Toony Tombola’ has traditionally thrown-up surprise names of players brand new to the international scene, the theme of Gregor Townsend’s most recent Scotland training squad announcement earlier today was of a more ‘been-around-the-block-a-few-times’ variety.
The selection of the uncapped trio of Glasgow Warriors prop Oli Kebble (28-years-old), Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe (25-years-old) and Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele (27-years-old) had been fairly well trailed before the announcement, and they are being rewarded for several seasons of performing consistently well at club level.
Meanwhile, the more eye-catching call-ups were those who have been involved before but not recently for one reason or another.
For example, Finn Russell was expected back after his very public falling-out with Townsend in January, but it is good to have it confirmed.
Richie Gray chose not to make himself available for the 2019 World Cup and wasn’t involved in the first four rounds of the 2020 Six Nations before lockdown either because of family commitments and the need to focus on club rugby in France in order to put a couple of injury-ravaged seasons behind him. Now that he is back in Scotland playing for Glasgow Warriors, a return to the international fold is a far more manageable proposition for the 31-year-old.
Meanwhile, the inclusion of back-rowers Rob Harley (30-years-old and 21 caps) and Blair Cowan (34-years-old and 17 caps) were the real curveballs in there. Both are fine players and in good form, but their age-profile suggests that focus has shifted away from building through a four-year cycle to the next World Cup, towards reinforcing resilience right now, and adapting to the new breakdown law application which puts a premium on players who are able to exert pressure without giving away cheap penalties.
“Blair really caught our eye just before and during the Six Nations with some excellent performances [for London Irish],” said Townsend. “Since the restart he has played even better. He is in the physical shape of his life, you can see that with how he is playing. He can carry ball, link and offload, and he has added a physical edge to his tackling over the last season or two.
“He’s always been very good on turnovers and we know with the new law emphasis and application that being on the ball and looking for jackals is somewhere you are given a little bit more option, and certainly he is on the field to do that because we see it as one of his key strengths.”
“Rob can cover blindside or second-row and has got himself into really good condition during lockdown. He’s put on weight and is certainly as heavy as the other second-rows in our squad, His detail around maul defence has improved in particular, and he’s been involved in what he does regularly from the back-row which is to be an absolute nuisance to the opposition, getting on the ball and clearing contact. We want to reward players that are in form, and with him starting regularly for Glasgow he’s shown he’s ready for that step up to test level.”
The selection of that pair means that there is no room in the squad for Magnus Bradbury, who has been left to play for Edinburgh in order to get some much-needed game-time under his belt.
“Magnus has been unlucky in that we have a lot of competition in the back-row,” explained Townsend. “He missed the first game [after the end of lockdown] with a calf injury and was set to have a big game against Ospreys but went off with a head injury. We just feel he needs more games to show us the level he is capable of playing. The other guys in the back-row have either played really well for their clubs, or like Jamie Ritchie have played really well for us in the past.”
The full squad is in camp this week with the exception of the four players involved in next Saturday’s European Champions Cup Final between Racing 92 and Exeter Chiefs.
Russell will join the group on Sunday and will need to take a full part in training Monday and Tuesday in order to be considered for selection for the Georgia game the following Friday, although it is hard to imagine Townsend will want to parachute him straight into that match ahead of Adam Hastings, who stood up well in difficult circumstances during the Six Nations and will have a full week extra preparation under his belt.
Skipper Stuart Hogg, Sam Skinner and Jonny Gray will bounce straight from that European Final into the English Premiership Grand Final on the Saturday after the Georgia game, so will not come into the mix until the week of Scotland’s long-awaited final Six Nations match against Wales.
“We haven’t finalised our thoughts around who will start against Georgia and who might start against Wales,” said Townsend. “Finn has an opportunity this week to play in a very big game and we will see what happens once we get through this weekend. Then we will have a decision to make when the three Exeter guys join us for the Wales week.
“We are fortunate that three of those players are three of our most experienced players. Finn is on 49 caps, Jonny over 50 and Stuart over 70. These are players who have been around the group, who know the players and the coaches, and know the rugby we are aiming to play. If they are to go from one environment to the other in a short period of time, we believe they have the capabilities to do that.
“We have to find ways to build that cohesion as well. They are all going to be online via zoom for a meeting on Tuesday night. We will be filming training sessions and sending out information to them during the next two weeks, albeit they have their own games to focus on. So, they will have that information, be able to see what we have done in training, and see things we are trying to add to our game since the Six Nations.”
With Townsend having named a bumper 40-man squad, Scotland’s pro coaches will be hoping that some of the 14 players each from Edinburgh and Warriors will be released back down to their clubs at some point during a fairly hectic stretch in the PRO14 season – although it isn’t going to be easy given issues related to preserving the integrity of ‘team bubbles’ and fixture clashes.
“This is a squad of 40 players, we’ll have 23 for our games, so there’s going to be players going back to Edinburgh and Glasgow,” stressed Townsend. “We don’t have any of our players in England playing any rugby during the Nations Cup window, so it’s highly likely you’ll see players going back to play for Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“There will be challenges, because [club] games are on Sundays and Mondays and that might have a knock-on effect on whether a player is available the following week for us. But we have regular testing, and we expect players to follow the protocols and behaviours outside of our camp as they have been doing for their clubs throughout the season.”
Townsend added that he intends to bring Edinburgh stand-off Jaco van der Walt to take part in training during the next few weeks to give him a feel for the environment and style of play before he qualifies to play for Scotland on residency grounds during the week leading up to the France game.
Listed as unavailable were: Rory Hutchinson, who has been ruled out for a couple of months with an ankle injury; Duncan Taylor, who is hoping to be back at some point during the Autumn following a shoulder injury; Kyle Steyn and Byron McGuigan, who are both out long-term recovering from hamstring surgery; Alex Craig ,who has a pectoral injury; and Luke Crosbie, who is out for two or three weeks with a hamstring issue.