WITH under a fortnight to go before the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, Gregor Townsend has made a preliminary sketch of his team to play England, but has yet to take some key decisions.
The Scotland coach named a squad of 35 last week for the Six Nations, and although he is entitled to bring in other players either as injury replacements or as straight additions, it is a selection which in some positions reveals what his starting line-up is likely to be for the game on Saturday week.
That is the case above all at half-back, where he has chosen just Ali Price and Scott Steele to compete for the No 9 jersey, and Finn Russell and Jaco van der Walt for the No 10 spot.
Price and Russell look sure to revive their old Glasgow partnership, with Steele selected as back-up scrum-half primarily for the defensive qualities of which Townsend has spoken so highly in recent months. Similarly, Van der Walt, although lacking the genius-akin-to-madness touches which characterise Russell’s game, offers solid, surefooted back-up.
Stuart Hogg retains the captaincy and will therefore start at full-back, which means three positions in the back division are inked in. The wing berths are altogether less certain, in part because Edinburgh pair Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham have been sidelined by injury and personal reasons respectively, while the omission of Sam Johnson from the squad leaves a substantial question mark at centre. In the pack, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson should be the props, Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings look sure to continue their second-row partnership, and Hamish Watson is a clear first choice at openside. In the absence of the injured Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, George Turner will start at hooker, which leaves only two forward positions to be determined, blindside and No 8.
With matches this weekend and next, however, Townsend is keenly aware that his hand could be forced by further injuries or illnesses. His squad will assemble today, but not until after next weekend’s matches will he feel able to finalise his 15.
“I’ve got a rough idea,” he said after announcing his squad when asked if he knew what that 15 would be. “You don’t want to write it down, because we’ve got guys playing this weekend and it’s likely we’ll have guys playing the weekend before we play England, because there’s a full round of Premiership fixtures.
“With competition for places, we haven’t made [some]decisions, but we also know who has played well for us and who we believe will give us the best chance of winning against England. We’ll cross our fingers we have everyone to select from come the Monday morning of that England week.”
Asked about the No 2 jersey, Townsend made it clear how important a player Turner is set to be for Scotland in the Championship. “It’s a great opportunity,” he said of the Warriors forward, who has 12 caps but has yet to play in the Six Nations. “He took his opportunity in the autumn when he came off the bench against Italy and really helped us change the way that game was going with a couple of big impacts in defence, a break that led to a try and then a try himself.
“George has got some great strengths. His ball-carrying and his tackling are standout areas of his game. His set-piece is an area he’s improved in the last couple of years and he’s obviously favourite to start for us now. He can prepare for the Six Nations knowing he’s going to play a big role.”
In the back row, the coach said he was looking at Gary Graham more as a 6 than an 8, and the Newcastle player will surely be close to a start if Jamie Ritchie continues to be ruled out with concussion. Matt Fagerson and Blade Thomson would then compete at 8.
Huw Jones is seen as primarily an outside centre despite playing full-back for Glasgow just now, although his versatility may be regarded as more useful on the bench, with Chris Harris being preferred. Conversely, Cameron Redpath’s ability to play at 10 as well as inside centre could be enough to get him into the starting line-up.
Townsend will certainly need a Plan B for his half-backs given the lack of them in his squad, and when asked about stand-off cover he insisted he had several options. “We’ve got a number of players,” he said. “Stuart Hogg was covering there in the Autumn Nations Cup in a couple of games. James Lang has covered there, Cam Redpath has covered there – he finished the game a couple of weeks ago at 10 – and Blair Kinghorn went in for 10 minutes at 10 last weekend.”