Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will name as many as 40 players for the forthcoming NatWest 6 Nations campaign at Murrayfield today – with possibly the most important one being a player who has not played for the national team since an infamous incident two and a half years ago.
Jon Welsh was the man at the very centre of the penalty incident in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Australia in 2015, the “culprit” who was deemed offside when he gathered a loose ball and wrongly penalised by referee Craig Joubert, ultimately leading to Bernard Foley’s penalty that cost Scotland a semi-final against Argentina.
The Newcastle prop has not played for Scotland since, but it’s obvious to all he’ll be needed for the 6 Nations opener in Cardiff against Wales. He’s the only fit, available and reasonably experienced tight-head available to the Scots.
WP Nel is out, possibly for his second 6 Nations in succession, rehabbing a broken arm sustained in Noevmber. Zander Fagerson is out after a weights bench fell on his foot in the Scotstoun gym. Simon Berghan, the starter in the last test against Australia in November, is out for Cardiff, serving the last day of his suspension for stamping in the Christmas leg of the 1872 Cup match on the actual day of the game.
The men left standing are Welsh, the uncapped Glasgow third-string D’Arcy Rae, and Murray McCallum, the young Edinburgh loose head who has been filling in for Nel and Berghan on the “wrong” side in recent weeks.
Welsh is the obvious choice, a regular starter in the Premiership in England for one of the most-improved teams in that league. Yet his face hasn’t seemed to fit with Scotland recently, left out entirely until he was called into the squad as cover at the tail end of the last Autumn Tests.
A popular and garrulous figure, and a fine scrummager, it’s not easy to see why Welsh was repeatedly overlooked, notably when Moray Low, despite playing barely a handful of games for Exeter, was selected ahead of him during Vern Cotter’s latter days.
But it may have roots in why the native Glaswegian was allowed to leave the Warriors so easily just before the World Cup. Welsh’s setpiece ability is not doubted, but his workrate about the park, especially in defence, has been called into question.
That may have some truth, but Newcastle certainly don’t have an issue with him. Whether Townsend or his defence specialist assistant Matt Taylor do, they simply have to put misgivings aside. Stability, with injuries also an issue on the loose head side of the scrum – although less acute –means that Welsh has to be trusted.
Townsend’s extra large squad will reflect the number of players who are light on games coming back from injury – not least Stuart Hogg, who hasn’t played since the epic All Black test, and the former skipper Greig Laidlaw, who has still not played a comeptitive game since breaking his leg in October.
Alex Dunbar, Ryan Wilson and Tommy Seymour – all fixtures in the side if not star names – haven’t played this year yet. Richie Gray, a towering threat at the lineout, has only just returned from a long-term back injury.
But compared to Wales, who will be missing possibly five or more of their Lions, the Scots’ injury list is manageable, and Townsend plugged whatever gaps there were quite successfully in Scotland’s outstanding autumn campaign.
The other interest comes in a few recalls and which young names get promotion. David Denton has been back to form with struggling Worcester in the Aviva Premiership, and with doubts about Wilson he offers a ball-carrying option.
Edinburgh’s Jamie Ritchie may be on the verge of a bench spot such is his form this year, but there will be real interest in whether the Scots seek to “mark” Gloucester scrum-half Ben Vellacott – who is dual qualified with England – or give Glasgow’s George Horne a deserved call-up for his form with the Warriors this season.
Given the management team broadly hinted in the autumn that wherever there was a choice they’d lean towards the Scottish-based player, it suggests Horne – possibly the quickest half-back Scotland have had for years – will get the call.
Edinburgh’s Blair Kinghorn, lighting up the PRO14 and the European Challenge Cup this year, will surely get a squad place for the first time, and there may be a recall for Mark Bennett, although he will be hard pressed to force a way past the formidable trio of centres Dunbar, Huw Jones and Duncan Taylor.