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'Brings a bit of niggle': Gregor Townsend assessment of uncapped Scots

By Bryn Palmer
Scotland's head coach Gregor Townsend (R) talks to his players ahead of the Six Nations international rugby union match between Scotland and England at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland on February 24, 2024. (Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With ten frontline operators including Finn Russell, Ben White, Blair Kinghorn and Zander Fagerson given a summer off and Darcy Graham and Andy Christie still recovering from injury, opportunity knocks for a host of players in the Scotland squad heading on tour to North and South America.

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Head coach Gregor Townsend has named ten uncapped players in the 37-man party which will face Canada in Ottawa, USA in Washington, Chile in Santiago and Uruguay in Montevideo in successive weeks in July.

Four of those ten waiting for a senior debut have been involved in some capacity before. Sale wing Arron Reed was picked for Scotland’s Six Nations squad but didn’t make a match-day 23, while Leicester prop Will Hurd was also included but picked up an injury before the squad assembled.

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Emerging Glasgow lock Max Williamson was called up for training during the championship, while Edinburgh centre Matt Currie started a Scotland ‘A’ game against Chile on tour two years ago and is now pushing for a full cap after a strong season.

Another intriguing selection is Dylan Richardson, who won a single cap off the bench against Japan in 2021 as a flanker but has been picked as a hooker for the first time since making a positional switch this season with South African side Sharks, who he recently helped win the European Challenge Cup.

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RugbyPass spotlights six players who have earned their first senior call-ups – and Townsend explains why he has chosen them.

Gus Warr (scrum-half)
The Manchester-born Sale half-back has a Scottish mother, spent his latter school years at Dollar Academy near Stirling and played for Scotland at age-grade level up to Under-20s.

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The 24-year-old then played for England U20s in 2019, but Townsend does not believe it was a tough decision for him to throw in his lot with Scotland.

“He’s made it clear over the last year or two that he’s very keen to play for Scotland after playing most of his age-group rugby for Scotland,” he said.

“He’s someone who’s been very consistent; the fundamentals of his game – his passing and kicking – are at a high level. I felt since the Six Nations his game has gone up a level.

“With Raffi Quirke coming back available to Sale, he’s had a real challenge there and he’s started most of the games, especially in the last few weeks of the season.

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“His speed away from the ruck area – especially his passing – has been a real positive. When you’re looking at scrum-halves you’re looking at those fundamentals and also the type of player who can succeed at Test level. You need a strong kicking game, a strong passing game and to be really competitive.”

With Toulon’s Ben White and the experienced Ali Price among those to be left at home, Warr will compete with Glasgow duo George Horne and Jamie Dobie for a starting spot.

Robbie Smith (hooker)
Smith, from Dumfries, came through the Glasgow academy but only played one senior game for the Warriors before heading south and forging a career first at Bedford Blues, then Newcastle before joining Northampton in 2022.

He has mainly been used off the bench for Saints, but with Japan-bound George Turner’s Scotland career on hold and Johnny Matthews left at home, the former Scotland Under-20s skipper has a chance to work his way up the hookers’ pecking order.

“I remember one game when he was captain of the Under-20s when they had a really good win against England,” Townsend said.

“He is a passionate Scottish rugby player desperate to play for his country. He didn’t get the opportunity in Scotland to get a pro contract but worked hard at Newcastle and then at Northampton.

“We’ve been in regular conversation with the Northampton coaches throughout the season. They’ve been very impressed with him. He’s been unlucky the last few weeks since he’s come back from injury, with the two other hookers playing really well in his absence.

“But we saw enough last season and in parts this season to know he has got the game that can make the step up to Test rugby. He’s very solid in the set-piece and very competitive outside of that.”

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Nathan McBeth (prop)
The South African-born loosehead, who qualifies for Scotland via an Edinburgh-born grandfather, represented both South Africa and Scotland at Under-20s level.
But after joining Glasgow from the Lions in 2021, this has been a breakthrough season for the 26-year-old, who has featured in 17 of the Warriors’ 24 matches, including six starts.

“I think he’s been really consistent,” Townsend said. “His scrummaging has really improved and got to a level where he’s part of a dominant Glasgow scrum – whether it’s him or Jamie Bhatti at loosehead. We love his competitiveness as well. He brings a bit of niggle whenever he plays.

“You mature or get to a level where you can play Test rugby at different ages. Props do tend to be later because the amount of experience you need to gain in the scrum does take time.

“Nathan is now going to be competing with Rory Sutherland and Pierre Schoeman, two guys who have obviously played a lot of rugby for us the last few years.”

Ewan Johnson (lock)
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the whole squad, the 24-year-old Cheshire-born, France-raised lock has been picked ahead of the likes of Edinburgh duo Marshall Sykes and Jamie Hodgson, in the absence of the rested trio of Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist and Sam Skinner.

Johnson, a former Scotland Under-20s cap whose father is from Bathgate near Edinburgh, went to school in Paris and was part of Racing 92’s academy before moving on to Vannes in Pro D2 and then Top 14 strugglers Oyonnax this season.

“What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is someone who is physically capable of playing at the highest level,” Townsend said.

“He’s 6ft 8in, about 125kg, and he shows that physicality when he plays. Over the last three months he’s been playing a lot of the teams that finished in the top half of the Top 14 and performing well.

“There’s some areas of the game he can improve, but he moves well and in general has a very good set-piece, carries the ball well and is skilful.

“Chatting to the coaches who worked with him in the Racing academy, he was one of the best players there and since then he has played Pro D2, went to Oyonnax and then got injured. He wasn’t playing in the first half of the season, so he’s only come back on our radar in the last couple of months – we’ve been very impressed with how he’s played.”

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Patrick Harrison (hooker)
Edinburgh-born Harrison, 21, could also be classed as a tour bolter having found game-time hard to come by with the capital side this season.

With Ewan Ashman and Dave Cherry the club’s established frontline duo, Harrison had to make do with just three outings off the bench during the Six Nations period, but has now been selected over two emerging Glasgow hookers owing to some strong recent outings for the Edinburgh ‘A’ side.

“Paddy Harrison is a great story of someone who has not had the opportunities with Edinburgh over the last few weeks but has played really well in those three games for Edinburgh A,” Townsend said.

“He’s competing with the likes of [Glasgow’s] Angus Fraser and Gregor Hiddleston, who are also playing well in that position.

“Whether it’s Paddy who comes through from Peebles to Edinburgh and then is on our tour, or someone comes from playing for the Sharks, or Oyonnax, we will judge who we believe is the best person to get this opportunity, for them to grow and also help the team win.”

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Gregor Brown (back-row)
The versatile Aberdeen-born forward, who spent time in Nigeria and Egypt during his childhood, has belatedly broken through at Glasgow after an earlier 14-month injury lay-off in 2021-22.

Although chosen as one of six back-rowers in the Scotland squad, it was two starts at lock for Warriors recently against the Bulls and Lions that convinced Townsend the 22-year-old was worth a shot.

“For us he really grabbed the opportunity out in South Africa,” said the head coach. “He has shown the ability to move between second row and six. He really fronted up there. Two years ago he started at openside against Leinster in a quarter-final for Glasgow, so he’s someone who can play across the back row and now second row too.

“We love his toughness, how he takes the game to the opposition. But there is competition in that position too. [Glasgow’s] Euan Ferrie is also playing really well and was in the mix too.

“I’m really glad that in each position, there is someone who is younger, either uncapped or with a low number of caps, who gets the chance to play for Scotland this summer and add depth, but also compete with a more established player.”

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Ed the Duck 33 days ago

Shrewd selections from toonie, looking forward to seeing how the young guns go…!!!

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