Gregor Townsend picked “more than one squad a day” over the last two months but believes the 31 he’s picked to take to Japan “will never have been in a better position” to be the best Scotland have taken to the Rugby World Cup.
With a few exceptions, Townsend picked a squad with miles on the clock in international rugby which means no place for Rory Hutchinson, who scored two tries in Georgia on Saturday night which many thought had booked his spot.
Instead the head coach will leave both Hutchinson and Huw Jones at home and go with Pete Horne and Chris Harris, a more conservative option than is Townsend’s usual habit.
The “bolter” in the squad – the player who came from nowhere to be selected – is not Hutchinson but Scott Cummings, the Glasgow Warriors lock who wasn’t even picked for the original training squad. He’s the second row-back row replacement for the injured Sam Skinner, meaning Scotland go with five regular back rows, Magnus Bradbury and Josh Strauss missing out.
The captain will be hooker Stuart McInally, cruelly denied a place in the 2015 tournament by a late injury and not even an automatic first choice for Edinburgh until Richard Cockerill got his hands on him two seasons ago.
By the time of yesterday’s rather dreich announcement in the smirr at Linlithgow Palace, it seems little had changed minds in the coaching team over the final weeks of preparation.
Only Blade Thomson, with barely 50 minutes of international rugby under his belt, was selected ahead of the more experienced and established player, and given Townsend’s admiration for the New Zealand-born back rower, that always appeared likely.
The most debate internally, said Townsend, had been about what to do when Skinner was injured against France 10 days ago, which suggests few original plans changed.
“It was debated the longest,” he said. “Sam was a player who could cover back-row and second-row. Scott Cummings was the only one who could slip into the back-row as he’s done that earlier in his career.
“In terms of getting our preparations right, having four second-rows really helps the team.
“Scott Cummings has been excellent and Grant (Gilchrist) and Jonny (Gray) have been excellent, so that became the final factor in us going with five back-rows.”
Hutchinson and Jones had come close in a tight centre selection, with a final discussion on the flight back from Tbilisi.
“Rory and Huw were debated for a long while on the flight, at the airport and during subsequent conversations with the coaches.
“Rory did very well on Saturday night, but just missed out as he’s not had enough international
experience, especially against some top teams. We know we have players in the group who have performed really well for Scotland in the bigger games.
“Huw hasn’t had enough games playing well, or playing at all over the last few months.
“He’s looked in unbelievable shape in training but we haven’t seen enough in the game and a half he’s had with us to get himself into that final squad.”
Jones’ omission will certainly raise eyebrows, but mostly abroad for those who don’t have a focus on the Scottish game. He scored ten tries in his first 13 starts and nearly got on the Lions tour in 2017, but hasn’t scored in a year and has been in and out of the Glasgow team since moving there.
Townsend was always likely to go with Horne, a valued on-field lieutenant.
“In the (second) France game he did very well but he had a pass intercepted,” said the coach. “You can look that and say i was an error and that happens or you can say it was really good defence.
“He played very well after that and worked his socks off as he always does. He was a really good foil to play with Finn and carried the ball and gave us width.
“He’s played a number of games for Scotland when we have done well, and he’s been a big part of that.”
Townsend is happy with his final squad and convinced that they offer Scotland’s best chance for success.
“Success would be playing to our best,” he said. “Playing to our potential has been our aim from the start, and we need to do that against Ireland and keep that going throughout the tournament.
“We know and we’ve seen, when play to our best we are a match for any team in the world.
“How we defended and attacked against those top teams won those games.
“We have a stronger squad now than we’ve ever had. We’ve never been in a better position over the last few years.”
The squad is Forwards: John Barclay (Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Allan Dell (London Irish), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Stuart McInally (capt) (Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh), Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Blade Thomson (Scarlets), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Backs: Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens).