Duncan Taylor’s readiness for a World Cup after two years missing from Scotland duty faces a real acid test on the French Riviera on Saturday night as Gregor Townsend’s first team of the elongated campaign as unveiled yesterday.
The Saracens centre, deemed so potentially important to Scotland’s hopes in Japan that he’s been essentially included sight unseen, plays alongside Huw Jones in the midfield for the opening summer test against France in Nice.
Rory Hutchinson, the uncapped Northampton player who can fill most of the roles Taylor does plus play a bit of stand-off as well, is on the bench and might well be regarded as Townsend’s insurance should Taylor break down yet again.
Taylor last played for Scotland in Fiji 26 months ago, before a succession of injuries including concussion, back problems and ruptured knee ligaments.
Townsend has made clear that the potential upside to Taylor – who can play either centre position, wing or full-back and excel at them all – is such that any risk is worth taking.
But this will be his first exposure to a live match – other than a “full” game behind closed doors against Edinburgh last week – in nearly a year.
“He is loved by coaches and players at the club he plays for and the country he plays for,” pointed out Townsend. “You don’t often get players who have that all round ability to communicate well in defence, work very hard in attack and defence and the skill to execute passes and make the right decisions.
“We are all just hopeful that over the next few years he gets a chance to play a lot more games for club and country.”
In addition, Taylor’s versatility – and that of Hutchinson, and others – fits very well in a World Cup far from home with a four-day turnaround between the last two pool matches, when it’s going to be tough to get the inevitable replacement players covering injuries up and running.
“Versatility is very valuable,” added the coach, turning to Hutchinson, who is still there after two other centres went in the first cut of the squad last week.
“Rory has obviously not played test rugby yet, he has to show us that he can over this period.
He is covering 10, 12 and 13 this weekend.
“He played a lot of the first part of his senior rugby as a stand-off, played two seasons for Scotland as No 10, and has finished games for Northampton at No 10.
“The majority of his games have been at 13 but if you were to ask him what his preferred position would be, he’d say 12!”
“The plan would be that he would come on somewhere in that centre field but if he has to come on at 10 for whatever reason we are looking forward to that too.”
Townsend has seven players from Edinburgh in his pack – the exception is Josh Strauss at No 8 – largely as their season ended earlier than the Glasgow or exile players.
Jamie Bhatti, who did play in every game for Glasgow in their play-off stretch but has now moved to Edinburgh, is like Strauss, Jamie Ritchie and Byron McGuigan in the backs, battling for competitive slots on the plane to Japan.
As for captain, Townsend has opted to stick with Stuart McInally with John Barclay, making his return to Scotland colours having missed the entire 2018-19 international season, still under consideration for the squad captaincy going forward.
“Stuart was captain in our last two Six Nations games, he lifted the Calcutta Cup and we believe there is good continuity there.
“John has not as many games and no international games for twelve months, so we feel his position this week as vice captain will be to focus on his game and also support Stuart in a strong leadership group.”
But there is no decision yet on who will lead the squad, with Greig Laidlaw still a live contender.
“We have had players who have captained the side over the past two seasons including Greig, John and Stuart,” added Townsend. “We will make that decision over captain over the next few weeks.
“Stuart has a lot of leaders in that team, two vice-captains, John and Stuart (Hogg), and also Grant Gilchrist has captained Scotland in the past.
“Duncan Taylor is a very good communicator and defensive leader. These are the players he will lean on in the game and to help bring on the half-backs who control our attack.”
Scotland team (vs France, Nice, Saturday kick off 8pm BST, 9pm local time): Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks); Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Jamie Bhatti (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (capt), Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); John Barclay (Edinburgh), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh) Josh Strauss (Blue Bulls).
Replacements: George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton Saints), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh).