He’s not really the reckless, “all-in” gambler that he’s sometimes painted, but there’s no question Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is not shy of making a gut decision.
So it’s just as well as he announces his 31-strong squad for the World Cup in Japan at a public event at Linlithgow Palace, as there’s simply no way of filling out the spots without taking a flier somewhere.
The sheer logisitics of a World Cup 14 hours away by direct flight ensure that. Injuries will occur and players will be replaced, but with the best will in the world there figures to be some element of improvisational or emergency selection either during or before one of the four pool games as the reinforcements have so far to come.
Fortunately Scotland – and the other major nations in Pool A – have been helped with the ridiculous machinations of the European B group qualification which allowed Russia into the tournament.
Three better teams than the Russians – Romania, Spain and Belgium – were all disqualified for various infringements of player eligibility. Great for the growing game in Russia, but it’s years too early for them, as an 85-10 thrashing by Italy in a warm-up game suggests.
Scotland play Russia four days before they play the hosts in the final pool game, and it’s almost certain that if our key figures – such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Hamish Watson, WP Nel – come through the games against Ireland and Samoa unscathed, they won’t be risked in order to get two full weeks’ rest before what could be the crucial game.
That team to play Russia could well be the team that plays on Friday in the return against Georgia. But Townsend has to announce his 31 first, and it’s fairly straightforward in many areas.
Simon Berghan’s brief run at loose head prop during the first warm-up game immediately gave up the decision that Townsend will go with five props. The only decision to be made here is Jamie Bhatti or Gordon Reid, and one suspects Bhatti’s great mobility coming off the bench will get him the slot.
The three hookers pick themselves, as do the three scrum-halves – although it’s intriguing Eddie Jones has picked only two for England, recognising that the third scrum-half could be twiddling his thumbs for the entire tournament when you would probably make better use of an extra back row or centre.
Similarly, reserve stand-off will – touch wood – probably play just one game and a little mop-up replacement work. When you’ve got other players who can probably do the job at 10 as much as it needs to be done against the Russians – Pete Horne, Rory Hutchinson, Greig Laidlaw, even George Horne and Blair Kinghorn – it’s tempting to gamble and use that spot, currently occupied by Adam Hastings, for something else.
In the last World Cup in 2015 Scotland had one major pre-tournament injury – Stuart McInally, who was third choice hooker then – and just one during the tournament itself, Grant Gilchrist. They are highly unlikely to be as fortunate again, especially given the recent injury histories of some players in the squad, and the number of concussions in the modern game.
But surely you want to have more scope for selection in the attritional positions – second row and back row especially – than carrying a possibly superfluous half-back?
If Townsend is not for gambling with the half-backs, for me you should take all the four second rows still fit – Scott Cummings deserves a slot and it will be great for his development – and five back rows, probably Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Blade Thomson, Ryan Wilson and Magnus Bradbury, who just narrowly takes a spot from the unlucky Jamie Ritchie because we need a proven ball-carrier.
But seriously, wouldn’t Ritchie be far more use over the whole tournament than either one of two back-up half-backs that may struggle to get 160 minutes between them if the front-liners stay fit?
In the outside backs, Rory Hutchinson didn’t play in Tbilisi as a final eliminator, I think he was already in. Sam Johnson, Duncan Taylor and Pete Horne – for his leadership and to cover 10, even starting against Russia – should join him.
It’s tough on Chris Harris and Huw Jones, who remember scored ten tries in his first 13 starts for Scotland. However there’s been none in the last year.
Only Byron McGuigan should miss out from the back five players. Tommy Seymour would appear to be under some pressure but he’s a proven finisher at this level and still better defensively – especially in the air – than Darcy Graham, although that gap is narrowing.
This is likely to be Townsend’s squad, although I would swap in Ritchie for Hastings.
Props: Simon Berghan, Jamie Bhatti, Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson, WP Nel.
Hookers: Fraser Brown, Stuart McInally, George Turner.
Locks: Scott Cummings, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Ben Toolis.
Back row: John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, Blade Thomson, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Scrum-halves: George Horne, Greig Laidlaw, Ali Price.
Stand-offs: Adam Hastings, Finn Russell.
Centres: Pete Horne, Sam Johnson, Rory Hutchinson, Duncan Taylor.
Back three: Darcy Graham, Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour.