Gregor Townsend reckons the norm for injuries in an international squad at the halfway point of a season – that is, now – is about 20%.
So were Scotland blatantly signalling the depth of their problem when they named 19 players in a supplementary list of injured and unavailable players at Wednesday’s announcement for the squad for the forthcoming championship?
There were 39 players named ready for combat, so add the 19 and maybe a couple more – Henry Pyrgos perhaps and possibly Alex Dunbar as guys who didn’t make the cut in positions Townsend is well provided for – and about a third of his probables and possibles for the championship are unavailable for the first two weeks.
A closer look at the list of names is what makes one suspicious that Townsend is sending a message to downplay expectations for the championship, which are, as is wholly customary, unreasonably high among Scottish rugby followers.
Damien Hoyland is one on the list, as is Cornell du Preez, and also Jon Welsh. All of them have played for Scotland relatively recently, but none were likely to be in most people’s thoughts for a place in even a squad this depleted.
Truth is that this issue didn’t need any further embellishment.
Key options like Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Duncan Taylor, Richie Gray, Magnus Bradbury and more aren’t there, and we go from the usual starting point that Scotland can ill-afford absences more than any other nation because of our relative lack of resources.
20% is an irritation for England or Wales or Ireland or France. 20% is a problem for Scotland, a third is just about a full-scale crisis.
Early in his tenure as head coach Townsend did a terrific job in papering over the cracks, especially in the front row during his first season, when whole cast of unlikely figures ended up with caps.
Slotting more into his system and making it look like they belong there would appear to be the significant challenge for the 2019 championship.
The other Gray
There is some light in this injury gloom with Richie Gray due to return for Toulouse this week.
A two-week shutdown in the Top 14 means his comeback could be delayed, but it’s envisaged that he might be ready for the fourth round of games, against Wales at Murrayfield in March.
He will come into a log-jam at second row, one of the rare areas Scotland is pretty well catered for. There’s brother Jonny, of course, the up-and-coming Sam Skinner (who can also play at six) is going great guns for Exeter, and if he has another big game in Munster this weekend he might be tough to leave out.
And of course there is the Edinburgh combination of Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist, who have been a huge contributory factor to the capital club’s run of six successive wins.
For that duo it’s been pretty much a case of either/or in partnership with Gray during much of the last year. But are we at the stage now that they deserve to play together instead of Jonny?
They pretty much outplayed Gray in both legs of the 1872 Cup last month. For all his indefatigable work-rate, tackling and carrying, the younger Gray is not the most dynamic second row in the modern form of Leinster’s James Ryan or Saracens’ Maro Itoje.
It may be sacrilege to some, but I’d always prefer his elder brother – a huge lineout force and better about the park than he’s given credit for – if there were a straight choice.
The back-five mix in the scrum is a bit of a Gordian knot with John Barclay out, Jamie Ritchie playing so well and no outright preferred choice at No 8. Hamish Watson at 7 seems to me to be the only obvious, unchallenged choice.
Adam’s travails are part of the deal
Adam Hastings was rested by Glasgow last week against Cardiff, and his dip in form causes an issue for Townsend, who seems to have identified him as the only option to Finn Russell at 10.
The head coach is supportive; teams have begun to try to look to ways to negate Hastings after his strong run at the start of the season, said Townsend, and Adam will adjust. Stand-offs – and obviously the head coach was one himself – have these spells, he reasons.
“These have been valuable experiences for him to work out how to help the team to go forward and help the team win,” said the coach. “I think in his long-term career those games will serve him very well.”
Hastings bounced back after a poor game against the USA in the summer, Townsend pointed out, having an outstanding game against Argentina.
If Adam does return to action this week, of course, it’ll be against Saracens at Allianz Park.
It would be quite a place to make a statement, and to underline Townsend’s faith.
Equally, it’s also a place where his confidence could be completely shattered.
It’s going to be an interesting choice for Dave Rennie, with reverberations well beyond simply the Warriors.