The 6 Nations is over for another year, and it seems that all focus now turns to the World Cup in Japan.
Yes, there’s plenty domestic issues to sort and the little matter of two European quarter-finals for our pro clubs next week, but one suspects the influence this will have on RWC squad selection is pretty limited.
Gregor Townsend even admitted to trying a few things in the last two games of the 6N with the RWC in mind, which suggests his plans are already well-advanced.
You’d have to think his squad’s going to come from the 40 players who wore the dark blue at some point during this international season, plus a handful rendered hors de combat for the entire campaign by injury.
There is much sleight of hand that can be done by international coaches picking their final 31. Townsend is by nature adventurous, and I’d expect him to make at least one curious pick, possibly subverting the accepted practice that you absolutely must have three hookers, four locks and three scrum-halves, for example.
His predecessor Vern Cotter went with three locks for the majority of the 2015 tournament after Grant Gilchrist got hurt – it should be noted that was the sole injury of that campaign, an outrageous slice of good fortune which is very unlikely to be repeated.
For these purposes, however, I’m going with an orthodox squad, although obviously the versatility at Townsend’s disposal gives him room to wriggle, which he’ll probably take (selections are in alphabetical order, not in seniority).
Hookers: Fraser Brown, Stuart McInally, George Turner. Reserve: Grant Stewart
The easiest selection area, with the bonus insurance that all three picked could do a job in the back row in an emergency. Stewart has come on leaps and bounds in his first professional season.
Props: Simon Berghan, Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson, WP Nel, Gordon Reid. Reserve: Alex Allan.
Two looseheads and three tightheads, as on balance it’s where insurance is most needed. Four automatics, while Gordon Reid’s place is by no means secure, but Scotland are not spoilt for choice in looseheads right now.
Alex Allan, Jamie Bhatti and Rory Sutherland all need strong finishes to the club season to make a case but are unlikely to get many chances. Allan’s mobility is most useful at the end of games.
Locks: Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Ben Toolis. Reserve: Tim Swinson.
It would have been ludicrous 18 months ago to suggest neither of the Gray brothers would be first choice going into the World Cup, but that appears to be where we are at.
Richie has been left alone to make a gradual recovery from long-term injury with Toulouse. Well, at least that’s the official line; it might be the management team have moved on, which I think would be a bad mistake.
However Sam Skinner’s ability to play second row may convince Townsend to leave Richie behind and pick an extra back-rower…
Back row: John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, Sam Skinner, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson. Reserve: Jamie Ritchie.
…and it must be tempting. As usual, there are many candidates for the loose forwards and even six places feels too few. More than one excellent player is going to miss out here.
If John Barclay returns to anything like normal form, he leapfrogs everyone who has played in his stead this season. Watson is a certainty, and I think Magnus Bradbury moved well ahead of Josh Strauss at Twickenham.
Skinner’s versatility gets him in, and Ryan Wilson can play across the back row as well. Jamie Ritchie is unlucky but might be on the plane if Townsend opts for the Skinner-as-lock option.
Sorry, no place for Strauss, Matt Fagerson, David Denton or Blade Thomson, who has simply not played enough this year.
Scrum-halves: George Horne, Greig Laidlaw, Ali Price. Reserve: Henry Pyrgos.
Pyrgos is central to Edinburgh’s style but he doesn’t suit Scotland’s, so it’s an easy choice. Some think George Horne could force his way ahead of Laidlaw and Price before long.
Fly-halves: Finn Russell, Adam Hastings. Reserve: Duncan Weir.
Except Pete Horne is the real third option. Hastings also now covers full-back. I suspect the Russell-Hastings midfield partnership idea has been ditched.
Centres: Pete Horne, Sam Johnson, Huw Jones, Duncan Taylor. Reserve: Matt Scott.
The second brutal selection area. Taylor is obviously a big question mark because of his fitness issues but he can play both centre positions, wing or full back and is an outstanding athlete at all of them. If he’s fully fit, he must go.
Johnson forced his way in during the Six Nations, and Horne is a Swiss Army Knife solution to many issues.
This could easily change, though; they like Nick Grigg and Chris Harris a lot while Mark Bennett and Matt Scott are about to come back to regular play.
Back three: Darcy Graham, Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour. Reserve: Byron McGuigan.
Hard on Byron McGuigan, but the five ultimately pick themselves, even if a lot of people are going cold on Seymour. Hogg’s restoration could make Darcy Graham even more of a new threat.
And my team to play Ireland in the opening game: Hogg; Graham, Jones, Taylor, Maitland; Russell, Price; Dell, McInally, Nel; R Gray, Gilchrist; Barclay, Watson, Bradbury.
Replacements: Brown, Reid, Z Fagerson, J Gray, Skinner, Laidlaw, Hastings, Kinghorn.