Gregor Townsend continues to trawl for something different as he builds Scotland towards the World Cup a year from now but Sam Skinner’s presence in a Scotland squad named for the Autumn Tests yesterday was really out of left field.
The 23-year-old Exeter Chiefs lock would have been in the squad even if Richie Gray and Tim Swinson were fit, insisted Townsend, illustrating the management team’s desire to pin down the athletic Taunton boy, whose father Peter was born in Ayr.
The other two new inclusions were more expected. Blade Thomson, the former Hurricanes No 8 who has impressed in his first season with Scarlets as John Barclay’s replacement, would seem a pretty handy replacement for the still-injured captain. Born in New Zealand, his grandfather is from Wishaw.
Australian-born Glasgow centre Sam Johnson has no Scottish antecedents but has finished the residency requirements, and despite having played relatively little this season due to injury, he’s clearly a favourite of Townsend, whop signed him for the Warriors.
The head coach has capped a goodly number of players in his 15 months in the job, and was a little pleased with himself to have sprung Skinner on the gathered media at BT Murrayfield yesterday.
“I’m sure everyone knew about him and you’ve not been frantically googling his name,” said the coach with a twinkle in his eye.
“He’s an excellent player with a big future ahead of him. We’d known about his Scottish qualification for a number of years as he was involved in the Exiles programme as a youngster.
“But it was when we heard that nothing would make his dad more proud than Sam playing for Scotland (that alerted us). So we’ve been tracking him really closely.”
There had been a thought to take him on the summer tour but the player himself wanted to prove his worth – and to think carefully about his commitment – before that move was made.
“He wanted to start the season and earn his place and he’s done that,” said Townsend. “I’m glad we continued those conversations because he realised over the summer it’s what he wanted to do.
“It’s a massive decision to make. They’re playing for a club in England there are repercussions for them when they are no long English qualified as you know. But he’s committed now and his family will be very proud.
“He’s an excellent player, the line-out leader for one of the best packs in Europe, his decision-making is excellent and he takes really good running lines, so we’re delighted he’s joining us.”
Nothing is guaranteed for these new inclusions . Two of last year’s much-trumpeted “finds”, centre James Lang and back-rower Luke Hamilton – who moved to Edinburgh – are not even in the extended squad of 40 which covers four Autumn tests, starting with Wales in Cardiff on November 3.
That extra game is outside the world rugby international window, so no French and English-based players as well as Thomson will be involved. Scarlets will actually play Edinburgh at Murrayfield the night before the Cardiff game, which will be contested for the Doddie Weir Cup to aid the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, the campaign to raise funds to research Motor Neurone Disease which afflicts the popular former Scotland and Lions lock.
“We are a team that doesn’t usually play four tests but everybody else and most of the teams in the northern hemisphere do,” said Townsend. “England have done it, Ireland have done it over the past few years and are now playing Italy in Chicago and played the All Blacks in Chicago. Wales always do.”
The Autumn Tests mark the start of World Cup preparations in earnest, with nine games coming up playing many of the top ten teams in the world, but it’s about firming out the work already done rather than outright experimentation.
“A number of new caps were given out on the summer tour, and that was a deliberate policy to see these players on tour, see how they get on with each other, see how they perform against tough opposition in different, challenging environments.
“A lot of those guys put their hands up and are still in the squad. We now have nine huge games coming up playing most teams in the top ten in the world, I think four of the top six in the world are now Six Nations teams.
“We build on the things that are working, refining them to make them even more accurate. But the base of our game I believe won’t change. That is an aggressive defence that gets the ball back, and an attack at a pace that works the opposition and puts their fitness under pressure.
“It suits our players and our strengths and when we get it right, we can perform well and take on any team in world rugby.”
Squad: Forwards – Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Allan Dell (Edinburgh), David Denton (Leicester Tigers), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Murray McCallum (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Blade Thomson (Scarlets), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), George Turner, Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Backs – Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Dougie Fife (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons) , Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Henry Pyrgos (Edinburgh), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors).
Not considered through injury: John Barclay, Mark Bennett, Lewis Carmichael (all Edinburgh), Cornell du Preez (Worcester Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens).