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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Scotland candidates who need to prove themselves in this ‘testing ground’

Magnus Bradbury has responded to a challenge from Gregor Townsend.

No sooner are we done with a gruelling November series, it seems, than we’re pitched into the main course of the club season. European games begin this weekend for two months, interrupted by the back-to-back 1872 Cup games over the festive period.

This is usually a massive testing ground for Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and his management team. Fresh from a break in France, Townsend will be focused on the areas of his team that need plugged or augmented prior to opening the Six Nations at home to England.

After a decent 2021 – Scotland’s best year since professionalism, by the bare bones of results – there’s actually not that many. 12 of the 15 starting spots in the Scotland team are reasonably settled.

But the four rounds of European games and two derbies are still a big proving ground. Here’s the players who have to impress in the next six weeks…

Magnus Bradbury

Three years ago Bradbury played a huge role in the epic Calcutta Cup comeback game at Twickenham. But he only made the World Cup that autumn as an injury replacement.

Since then he’s been a peripheral figure for Scotland. Townsend even preferred to call up veteran Ryan Wilson when he needed a No 8 for Paris in the spring.

It’s no secret that Bradbury’s been given a figurative boot up the backside. Play to potential, and there’s definitely a place for a player who is the most physically imposing option for the back row.

In recent Edinburgh games Magnus appears to have answered the call. He was Man of the Match against Benetton last Friday. That was also his 100th appearance for Edinburgh and he’s made just 14 for Scotland, which sort of underlines the catching up he has to do.

This weekend’s ECC match against the formidable Saracens would be a decent place to make a statement.

Scott Cummings

The Glasgow second row has been unlucky with injuries so far this year, a crucial one for him if the career arc which many thought might take him to the Scotland captaincy is continue.

His first injury in the spring allowed Grant Gilchrist to re-establish his place as the lineout caller. But the setpiece disasters of the Ireland game, with Cummings doing the calling, had been an issue. The veteran Gilchrist shored that up, although it went awry against the Springboks.

Jonny Gray is now coming back from injury, while Sam Skinner and Alex Craig did well in the interim.

But you have to think that Cummings is still thought of by the international management as one of their lead locks.

A concerted run of quality performances over this key spell – especially the 1872 Cup games – might be an opportune moment to underline that.

George Horne

At the World Cup and after, the livewire former Howe of Fife 9 looked like a potential rival to Ali Price for starting scrum-half. Price’s massive advances in 2021 ended that debate.

George now doesn’t seem so solid as the first alternative. Young Jamie Dobie is coming up fast, and Ben Vellacott is blazing since he came to Edinburgh.

It may be circumstantial, but Horne’s prominence seems to have dimmed under Danny Wilson at Scotstoun. A lengthy injury over the turn of last year was probably more responsible, but he needs to recover his spark.

His pace, awareness and brilliant support lines should be a massive weapon for club and country. Playing time, with Price currently at the very top of his game, may be an issue in this next period.

Darcy Graham/Kyle Steyn/Rufus McLean

Three for the price of one? Really, you’d be okay with any of this trio on the opposite wing to sure-thing Duhan van der Merwe.

Darcy has “credit in the bank” with Townsend, his prolific finishing and X Factor meaning he’s the lead man. But he was hooked in his last two November tests around the hour mark, which at least suggests there’s a discussion going on.

McLean was preferred for the Springboks, and his defensive positioning was in question for both Makazole Mapimpi’s tries. That will be sorted, and Rufus has plenty time at 21, but maybe some seasoning is still required.

Steyn doesn’t have the pace and step of the other two, but he’s quick enough, reliable, and superior defensively. He’s also most effective kick-chaser available to Scotland – and that’s a huge part of the game these days.

Townsend might recall old reliable Sean Maitland – one of the best defenders in the game still – for the Calcutta Cup game. But this next two months is a key time for the other three to make an impression.

Blair Kinghorn/Ross Thompson

Glasgow Warriors re-sign Ross Thompson

A face-off for the third rank in the stand-off queue? Doesn’t quicken the blood, but remember Scotland lost both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings in half-an-hour of a test match just a year ago.

Kinghorn’s transformation to a 10 appears to be serious, even if he seems to be removed to the back three whenever the replacements start appearing. It’s worked well enough that the reliable Jaco van der Walt isn’t getting a sniff at Edinburgh.

Thompson made his first appearance just a year ago at this time, and has come on leaps and bounds since then. That’s due credit to Danny Wilson and the Glasgow staff. Their “insurance” move to sign Duncan Weir in the summer seems to have been unnecessary.

If he continues to develop at his current rate of knots, Thompson might be a live challenger once Finn Russell (now 30) opts for a quieter life.

Kinghorn’s versatility means he’ll maybe get the nod right now for Scotland bench spots. But Thompson has a chance this next two months to show he’s the better 10.