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Scotland’s World Cup squad bolters face a final elimination in Tbilisi hotbed

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.

Scotland will field a strong side as the first major rugby nation to play Georgia in Tbilisi but it is a final eliminator for some for the World Cup after all.

“Plans change,” said head coach Gregor Townsend, and events even in warm-up matches require the coaching team to be flexible. The original plan was that this team should be the first to clearly illustrate who will be in the 31 to be named on Tuesday at Linlithgow Palace, but not even the entire starting XV is surely definite to make the final cut.

Rory Hutchinson may well have made enough of an impression in training and in just 50 minutes of international play to be preferred to some more seasoned candidates, but he this looks like a final chance to impress with his first start.

In addition, Matt Fagerson, the youngest of the squad and as such considered a long shot at best in the back row battle, gets a real opportunity to stake his claim with a starting role at No 8.

Townsend is also putting great stock behind putting Scotland’s away form issues to bed at least for a while by including some key names who might have got the week off and a run-out in next Friday’s grand send-off, again against Georgia at BT Murrayfield.

Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw, Hamish Watson, John Barclay (set to play in all three of the warm-ups so far), WP Nel and captain Stuart McInally are all in the side.

Sam Johnson makes a welcome return at centre but there’s still no sign of Jonny Gray, Magnus Bradbury or Fraser Brown, although the management team insist there is no cause for concern with any of them.

“Some players are getting opportunities,” said Townsend. “You look at performances, you look at cohesion and you think about the next game as well. So we’ve decided it was right to let Finn and Greig go again this week.

“We have a lot of experienced leaders out there. It’s a strong squad and an opportunity for us to put down a marker away from home. We haven’t done that enough in the last year or two.”

The absence of Sam Skinner – “a big loss for him and for us” said Townsend – has clarified some matters, and solidified Ben Toolis’ place when it may have been in some doubt after a rare anonymous display in the opening game against France.

Late lock call-up Scott Cummings, on the bench again, may now be in position to make the squad it seems, as Jamie Ritchie isn’t on this trip.

Fagerson is the surprise, and relegating Josh Strauss to the bench would suggest the veteran from 2015 can make other plans for the next couple of months.

Hutchinson – who can play either centre position, stand-off and wouldn’t be a passenger as a wing – still seems to be the most likely to be a squad bolter, given this chance with the squad just four days away from being named.

There are probably are just four centre slots available, unless they opt for a fifth, taking one less wing and lean on versatility…which means Darcy Graham, the flavour of the month in the Six Nations, could probably do with having a strong game tomorrow on both sides of the ball.

Scotland beat Georgia handily 43-16 the last time they played, at Kilmarnock three years ago. However a packed Dinamo Arena and the significance of Scotland being the first Tier One nation to dare to come to Tbilisi makes this a huge match for the hosts, almost as big as any of their World Cup games.

“Georgia have some very good players right throughout their team,” said Townsend. “When they first came out in international rugby and in the World Cup a lot was made of their front row and forward pack, physical attributes in scrum and lineout maul.

“Over a number of years they’ve got better and better at wider aspects of the game. Their backline play is now ambitious and accurate and very physical.

“They have an excellent coaching team. This is one of the toughest challenges you’ll get in world rugby. This is a top quality team that has been waiting for this opportunity.”

Scotland team (vs Georgia, Dinamo Arena, ko 5pm BST): Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton), Sam Johnson (Glasgow), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne); Allan Dell (London Irish), Stuart McInally (capt, Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh); John Barclay (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow).

Replacements: Grant Stewart (Glasgow), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow), Scott Cummings (Glasgow), Josh Strauss (Blue Bulls), Ali Price (Glasgow), Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Huw Jones (Glasgow).

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