The scrum is a strong area of Scotland’s game for the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff, not the injury-riddled crisis it’s been perceived as, according to Gregor Townsend.
The head coach has to deal with all those absent from his front row but still thinks he’s got a much better trio than most believe. Gordon Reid, one of those among that injured list until December but usually the first choice loosehead during Al Dickinson’s prolonged absence, is back, and Jon Welsh, who a great many believe has been overdue a recall, is on the tight head.
Add in Stuart McInally – “one of the best hookers in Europe just now” said Townsend – then perhaps the coach is justified in indicating that if Wales are looking for a weakness with Scotland, they may be probing in the wrong place.
That resources are stretched is illustrated with the inexperienced Jamie Bhatti and Murray McCallum – promoted ahead of time by his own club coach’s estimation and on the “wrong” side – on the bench, but that unit is otherwise a formidable statement of Scotland’s current strength in depth.
“We’ll need key leaders to step up and make decisions throughout the 80 minutes,” said the coach. “We’ve been really encouraged by the growth of leaders throughout our group.
“When you see someone like Finn Russell leading meetings, it says a lot about how we’re going to play. Also when you’ve got vice-captains in Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg, when you’ve got John Barclay doing an outstanding job as captain.
“And then you look at our bench: you’ve got real leadership there – Grant Gilchrist, Scott Lawson, Ryan Wilson, Peter Horne, Sean Maitland, and obviously Greig (Laidlaw).”
Those wise heads possibly active late in the game is the benefit of some tough decisions, deciding to give Wilson another week at least and starting Cornell du Preez, rewarding Byron McGuigan on the wing, and sticking – as expected – with Ali Price at scrum-half despite Laidlaw’s return.
Chris Harris, with Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor still recovering from concussions, is in the centre suggesting Townsend wants a defensive backbone to go with Huw Jones and the fleet and prolific outside backs. But it’s the front row were the most attention will be paid.
“Gordon Reid’s been an excellent player for Scotland, so we were disappointed that he picked up that injury before November,” continued Townsend. “He had a great game against Dan Cole in Leicester a couple of weeks ago, the feedback from London Irish is that his scrummaging in training games has been outstanding.
“Jon Welsh has played regularly in the Premiership the last two years and can’t wait to play for Scotland again.
Jamie Bhatti has continued his upward progress for Glasgow after a strong autumn in which he played in all three games, while the 21-year-old McCallum was ready and there were role models old and new for him to follow.
“He’s ready – for the same reasons Darryl Marfo was ready (in the autumn),” said Townsend of the Kirkcaldy-born prop, who started out with Dunfermline and was on a scholarship at Strathallan before playing for Scotland Under-20 and getting a pro deal at Edinburgh.
“We’ve seen over the last couple of weeks him go up against some tough opposition, Stade Francais in particular.
“There were a lot of scrums in that second game (in Paris). He played 70 minutes, which was a really step up for him.
“It’s now up to Murray to go and grab his opportunity. The role models for him are there in guys like Scott Lawson, Jon Welsh and Gordon Reid who haven’t been involved with us for a while but also in Darryl and Jamie Bhatti.”
The head coach is the last survivor in the squad of the last team to win at Cardiff in 2002, and it was a special occasion in more ways than just the result.
“I remember lineout drives and Gordie Bulloch scoring two tries,” he said. “It was important to us, not just because we were playing for Scotland but because it was Bill McLaren’s last game.
“We were delighted we won, but I think there was a bit of disappointment we couldn’t make Bill’s final game an epic of free-flowing rugby. Little did we know that would be the last win for a long time.
“Even in that run where Scotland haven’t done as well they’ve been really good games. 2010 didn’t go well for us, but was one of the best Six Nations games ever. I do believe this will be a great fixture both for supporters and neutrals.”
Townsend is keeping Warren Gatland on tenterhooks for a day or two on the usual vexed question of whether the roof of the Principality Stadium will be open or closed – it’s the away team’s call – but he wants a dry game.
“I asked him what he wanted and then said I’d get back to him,” said Townsend. “We would like dry conditions, so if it’s dry outside there’s no need to close the roof, if it’s not then let’s close the roof and let’s have a really good game.”