Scotland’s Six Nations contingency plan for a deepening of their hooker crisis is three uncapped players with the pecking order yet to be decided, admitted head coach Gregor Townsend.
Stuart McInally will be the unquestioned first choice for the first two games against Italy and Ireland, but should anything untoward befall the dynamic Edinburgh captain during these games or – heaven forbid – prior to the championship, then Townsend is looking at three men with just nine starts this season between them in a pivotal position.
Glasgow’s Grant Stewart, Edinburgh’s backup Dave Cherry and Jake Kerr, a former Edinburgh youngster who has found a home and a starting slot at Leicester Tigers, are the uncapped trio named in the 39-strong squad – with a supplement list of injured numbering an eye-watering 19 – but which order they end up for the visit of Italy in two weeks’ time will only be determined during training camp, starting on Sunday.
Fraser Brown and George Turner are the two experienced hookers who could be back for the third game of the championship against France, but as Townsend pointed out, both would “have to do something over the next couple of weeks in terms of their rehab” to have a chance.
“We have an idea of what we want from them but we’ll wait and see if they all come on Monday,” said the coach of the new trio. “They’re all likely to be playing this weekend.
“If they’re all fit and available on Monday we do have an idea of what we’ll do, but a lot will depend on that first week’s training, if they’re forming good relationships at scrum time with the props and the second rows at lineout time. But obviously one of them is going to be involved against Italy.”
They each have their attributes, although only Cherry has any real long-term experience at the top level.
“It’s a real credit to Jake that he’s gone down to a club with a real tradition of quality in the front five and found a way to get into the team,” said Townsend. “The Leicester coaches have been really impressed with what he’s done.
“They are three athletes. Grant Stewart is one of the quickest forwards at Glasgow, Dave is one of the quickest forwards at Edinburgh. Jake’s dad (former North and Midlands stalwart John Kerr) being a winger, has a fantastic engine. So we see them playing the rugby we aspire to play and that’s a big positive.”
That injured list of 19 – nearly a third of the players you’d imagine were under consideration for the squad – will diminish as the championship wears on, and some are due to come back to action reasonably rapidly.
Richie Gray, out since pre-season, is due to play for Toulouse this week, while Magnus Bradbury, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett, Zander Fagerson and others are due to return to action.
Some have had four or more months out, and they’ll definitely need games to get up to speed, but the PRO14 and France’s Top 14 close down for the first fortnight of the 6 Nations.
Townsend did effectively rule out last year’s 6 Nations captain John Barclay for the duration of the championship. “He may come back towards the end of the 6 Nations, I think Richard Cockerill’s already mentioned March as a date,” he said. “That’s going to be too late for him to play for us.”
More worryingly, players who might cover for last year’s captain are hors de combat as well. Scarlets’ Blade Thomson, who was earmarked as potential cover for Barclay, was concussed on the eve of the Wales game in the autumn, and is still not back to contact training,
David Denton has come back from a similar absence for a similar amount of time but has picked up a hamstring injury. One of the solutions is a recall for John Hardie, who was still banned this time last year for disciplinary breaches, eventually left Edinburgh and only signed up with Newcastle at the end of October.
“He hasn’t been involved in squads with us since because of injury, It was pleasing he came back and started playing at Newcastle, and he’s played really well over the last few weeks.”
With three of the world’s top four ranked teams now in the Six Nations – Ireland, Wales and England – the Six Nations is harder than it’s ever been even with a clean injury sheet, agreed Townsend, but he likes that the Scots open with back-to-back games at Murrayfield.
“It’s huge,” he said. “The Six Nations is about momentum and you’ve got to do well in the first two rounds of games to have a chance of winning the tournament, but also to give players confidence to go into that third game knowing you still have a realistic opportunity of picking up the trophy.
“Every team will have injury challenges, but every team will be going into the tournament believing they can win. “That’s the only reason we take part.
“We believe in our squad. We’ve seen how they’ve taken on the best in the world over the past few years, and on some of those occasions we had a lot of injuries.”
Forwards – Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors), Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), David Cherry (Edinburgh), Allan Dell (Edinburgh),
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), John Hardie (Newcastle Falcons), Jake Kerr (Leicester Tigers), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs) , Grant Stewart (Glasgow Warriors), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) , Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Backs – Chris Dean (Edinburgh), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors),
Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh) , Greig Laidlaw (capt, Clermont Auvergne), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors).
Unavailable through injury: John Barclay (Edinburgh), Mark Bennett (Edinburgh), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Lewis Carmichael (Edinburgh), David Denton (Leicester Tigers), Cornell Du Preez (Worcester Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Luke Hamilton (Edinburgh), Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Blade Thomson (Scarlets), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons).