Gregor Townsend will give Saracens centre Duncan Taylor and the uncapped Blade Thomson all the time they need to get up to speed for the Rugby World Cup but hasn’t afforded nearly the same scope to Richie Gray.
The 62-times capped lock will have to earn his additional place in only the training squad for Japan in Toulouse’s final four games of the season as one of two “extras”, and there’s no guarantee he’ll get even that.
As Gray has only just returned from a lengthy injury break, it’s probably understandable that others have worked their way ahead of him in the pecking order, even if the Scots have historically been a bit light on locks of 6ft 9in and 20 stone dimensions.
However Scarlets back-rower Thomson, who is one of three uncapped players named in the 42-strong squad, has played one game since October and Taylor hasn’t played at all in the 2018-19 season, yet both are named outright.
Taylor is only this week starting light training with his club after recovering from knee surgery, and won’t play a competitive game at least until Scotland’s opening warm-up match against France. Yet it seems the importance of the centre demands he’s given every chance to prove he is fit and in form enough to be on the plane on September 15.
Gray was a fixture when fit alongside his brother Jonny in the engine room, but even though he returned to full play with Toulouse during the 6 Nations the Scots’ management team “want to see more from him”.
“He has the opportunity over the next few weeks to show he can play at top level (Toulouse have potentially four games left in their season)and that the step up to test level would be an easy one,” said Townsend.
Gray is “in the mix” for one of two slots left open in the training squad, with it likely that one will be a lock and another an outside back.
“Richie is alongside other 2nd rows who have been playing really well,” continued Townsend.
“Andrew Davidson’s had a great season at Newcastle, and they’ve got one game remaining. Scott Cummings and Rob Harley have been playing really well for Glasgow, Tim Swinson was playing really well before his injury and we’re monitoring how he’s getting on.”
Circumstances are different for Thomson and Taylor, continued the head coach.
“Blade was in the great form before he got injured the night before we played Wales, so that form is just a few months ago and we hope he would be able to come back into that fairly quickly,” he added.
Taylor could be such a force for Scotland in midfield – even “a glue” for the backline with his offensive and defensive skills – that he deserved this opportunity despite such a long lay-off.
“He’s someone who is held in high regard with ourselves, the coaching staff and his team-mates,” added Townsend. “He hasn’t played that much for Scotland in the past two years but my first connection with him as a coach was on the summer tour two years ago when he was outstanding.
“We already know his quality, we’ve seen it close up and he provides the glue for what a backline can do because of the work he does is so good off the ball.
“If the timing works out really well that he’s back to full fitness then we have a player who we’ve not had for a couple of years who we would hope is in very good form.
“But if he is not able to produce that then it will be an easy decision not to include him in the final squad.”
The other two uncapped players are Glasgow hooker Grant Stewart and Northampton’s up and coming centre Rory Hutchinson, who Townsend said yesterday was a “strong contender” to go to Japan.
“We spoke to him a few weeks ago just initially, to make contact and tell him we were really happy with his form and if he continued that he could make this squad,” continued Townsend.
“I watched him in his last two games, against Newcastle and Worcester at the weekend, and the way he’s playing he’s a strong contender for the final 31.
“Centre is a very competitive position. I made a note of eight centres who have played pro rugby for top clubs in the last couple of weeks, Stafford McDowall, Kyle Steyn, Chris Dean, James Johnstone, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and James Lang, and they’ve all missed out.
“That shows you how highly we think of Rory and he does have a big opportunity these next few weeks.”
The other “extra” is expected to be a centre/wing and given Edinburgh have no games to play, it seems Dean, Johnstone, Scott and Bennett – the latter two Scotland’s first-choice centre partnership in the 2015 tournament – are out. Steyn, currently holding down the 13 shirt at Glasgow, would appear to be the favourite.
There is also no place for Duncan Weir, despite Townsend’s belief that the former Glasgow and Edinburgh stand-off is in the best form of his life for Worcester. Finn Russell and Adam Hastings are the two main 10s, with Peter Horne, Greig Laidlaw and Hutchinson, who played stand-off for Scotland Under-20s all able to cover.
Five players who appeared at some point for Scotland in the 2018-19 international season have been left out in the shape of Harley, Alex Allan, Alex Dunbar, Lee Jones and Jake Kerr.
Players who did not feature during the autumn internationals and 6 Nations but are included are former skipper John Barclay, Stewart, Taylor, Thomson and Hutchinson.
Scotland will play warm-up games home and away against France and Georgia. The final squad of 31 to go to Japan will be named in the week befoire the final warm-up game against Georgia at BT Murrayfield on September 6.
Forwards: John Barclay, Simon Berghan (both Edinburgh), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson, Zander Fagerson (both Glasgow), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Gary Graham (Newcastle), Jonny Gray (Glasgow), Stuart McInally, WP Nel (Edinburgh), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Grant Stewart (Glasgow), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks), Blade Thomson (Scarlets), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), George Turner (Glasgow), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow).
Backs: Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Nick Grigg (Glasgow), Chris Harris (Newcastle), Adam Hastings, Stuart Hogg, George Horne, Peter Horne (all Glasgow), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton), Huw Jones, Sam Johnson (both Glasgow), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw(Clermont-Auvergne), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks), Ali Price (Glasgow), Henry Pyrgos (Edinburgh), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow), Duncan Taylor (Saracens).