After a mostly successful tour and various training camps reflecting his usual thoroughness, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend probably had a clear idea of his best team for his first home games in charge in the forthcoming Autumn Test Series.
Why, attention to detail was such that they even had a proper schedule this time. No more jumping in at the deep end with a first game against New Zealand or Australia; this year, there’s a nice sighter with Samoa – yes, Scotland have had trouble with the Islanders in the past but they’re at a particularly low ebb right now – before they lock horns with the All Blacks and the Wallabies.
But Townsend’s plans have come awry in this injury-epidemic of a season. Scotland seemed to be getting by until the last few weeks when a succession of calamities have befallen his personnel.
Glasgow’s dressing room on Saturday after their defeat to Leinster looked like a casualty station and as a result Townsend postponed his squad announcement for 24 hours.
He names a pruned 32 man squad today, with it seeming certain John Barclay will continue as captain, his concussion problem having been cleared by a specialist and Greig Laidlaw out until the New Year with a broken leg.
The injury issues have served to make Townsend’s choices easier in many ways, and the suspensions to Magnus Bradbury and John Hardie, while awkward, are probably not really that relevant. Any further mishaps, however, and Scotland’s paper-thin strength in depth starts to look really troubling.
Here’s what I think Townsend should be considering:
BACK THREE: Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour will return to the fold after being elsewhere in the summer. Both are fresh and rested, Hogg looking as trim and quick as he’s done since he was a teenager. The other wing slot is probably still Tim Visser’s, although the revitalised Lee Jones definitely deserves a look, while Ruiradh Jackson will cover both 10 and 15.
CENTRES: Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Matt Scott are ruled out here but it’s a position of strength for Townsend with Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones probably the starting duo, unless he wants to go for a “double stand-off” formation with Peter Horne at 12. It’s more likely Horne’s versatility will get him a bench role. Nick Grigg or Chris Dean will be back-up, probably the Glasgow man having the edge right now.
HALFBACKS: Flatmates Finn Russell and Ali Price are stick-ons to start; many thought Price was ahead of Laidlaw anyway, especially since Russell has missed just two goal kicks in eight games this season. Duncan Weir has had injury issues but may have found himself surplus given Jackson and Horne’s ability to play at more than one position. Back-up scrum-half is more interesting after Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s decent start to the season, but expect Townsend to stick with the reliable Henry Pyrgos.
HOOKERS: We must marvel at Ross Ford, who may not be starting for Edinburgh but should do so for Scotland and add to his shedload of caps. In the injury absence of Fraser Brown his greater experience, superior defence and scrummaging weight is a safety net for Townsend, even though Stuart McInally and George Turner would be the more adventurous picks.
PROPS: Allan Dell’s return – subject to a minor groin issue – could not have been more timely, with Gordon Reid, Ali Dickinson and Rory Sutherland all out. Jamie Bhatti may get a squad place but Dell’s scrummaging has improved and he’s certainly the best available candidate in terms of play around the park. Scotland seemed well covered at tight-head with WP Nel and Zander Fagerson sharing the role but neither has begun the season that well. Simon Berghan has been more consistent in the setpiece than both.
LOCKS: No Richie Gray, and the need for a ball-carrier here and his recent better form suggests Grant Gilchrist is first in the picture to partner Jonny Gray. The back-ups are Ben Toolis and Tim Swinson, although Townsend should give a look to Scott Cummings, who is a better all round player than both already, although obviously lacking in experience.
BACKROW: Barclay, if completely recovered from his head knock issues, will play 6, Hamish Watson will be the 7, leaving only No 8 a question. Adam Ashe limping off and Ryan Wilson being escorted off groggily at Scotstoun on Saturday, Magnus Bradbury suspended after his night out maybe leaves a door open to a recall for David Denton, and Scotland badly need a ball carrier like him at his best. Josh Strauss, although hardly lighting things up at Sale, is a safe option, with Cornell du Preez coming into the picture as well. Jamie Ritchie, the revelation of Edinburgh’s season so far, should get a long look as Barclay’s back-up.