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Townsend's RWC show of strength

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For a Townsend squad announcement, this one was unpredictably predictable

There are 138 days until Scotland open their World Cup campaign, when all the talk and speculation and hype ends and the rugby begins with a whopper of a pool match against Ireland in Yokohama.

That monumental curtain-raiser four-and-a-half months down the tracks seems an age away. There are play-offs to come and trophies to be contested, camps in Portugal and Nagasaki and four warm-up fixtures against two different opponents.

But the World Cup suddenly has a tangible feel with the naming of the players who will compete for a seat on the plane. This is how rugby is nowadays, a hamster wheel of monstrous proportions.

On Tuesday morning, Gregor Townsend revealed the 42-strong group that will vie for the 31 places in the tournament squad. The coach has left the door ajar with two spots in the camp – one for a forward, one for a back – still up for grabs. It’s up to those left out to use the final throes of the club season to force their case.

For a Townsend squad announcement, this one was unpredictably predictable. There was no revving of the “Toony Tombola”, no meticulously cultivated bolt from the blue that nobody saw coming and most had no idea was Scottish.

The World Cup is no place for experimentation, but with so long to prepare, still you wondered if we’d get a James Lang or a Luke Hamilton or a Sam Skinner thrust to the fore. Instead, we got an established, trusted group of players into which the coaches will invest hour upon hour of fine-tuning.

The omissions? Duncan Weir is deeply unfortunate. The little pivot is having a blinder of a season, his canny play and points haul going a long way to Worcester Warriors’ retaining their Premiership status.

He might not be the perfect man to implement Townsend’s high-tempo attacking style but he brings different skills to the table than Finn Russell, Adam Hastings or Pete Horne, and that variety could be an important factor in the matches to come. It seems Townsend will go with two recognised fly-halves in Russell and Hastings, with Horne, Greig Laidlaw or Stuart Hogg providing emergency cover.

Lock is a position of supreme strength for Scotland, with Jonny Gray in brilliant end-of-season form, Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis with credit in the bank from their outstanding Six Nations, and Skinner bringing dynamism and versatility.

Still, the elder Gray brother might claim that last remaining forwards berth with a strong finale in France. The giant Richie Gray has endured an injury-ravaged two years and it has taken time for him to produce anything like his best form after his latest hip operation.

Only now is Gray showing flourishes of the lineout menace and power in open prairie that make him such an appealing option. Playing in a mesmeric Toulouse team motoring at the Top 14 summit will help his cause.

Scott Cummings is another second row with a lot to like about his game. The Glasgow man is a wonderful talent and very much in the Townsend mould but still uncapped, and ousting Gray junior, Gilchrist, Toolis and Skinner looks a tall order.

Three uncapped players are in, but none could be classed as a shock selection. Grant Stewart, the Glasgow hooker, is very useful around the paddock but fourth-choice in his position behind Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown and George Turner. Centre Rory Hutchinson has been a scintillating menace for Northampton Saints and the defensive side of his game is getting better.

Blade Thomson would be an international by now were it not for the brain injury he suffered on duty for Scarlets against Edinburgh six months ago. The lithe New Zealand-born back row is an exhilarating prospect in a Scotland jersey – rapid, athletic, with brilliant footballing skills – and Townsend will be eager to try him out in the summer warm-up games.

In fact, selecting a group of back rows is going to be fiendishly difficult. Beyond Hamish Watson and John Barclay, nobody looks safe. Jamie Ritchie was immense in the Six Nations but Gary Graham brings dog in abundance and Ryan Wilson is fit again.

The Glasgow co-captain is a particular favourite of Townsend for his intangible leadership, personality and confrontational streak as much as his relentless work rate on the field. Magnus Bradbury is a hell of a carrier at his best, but can he be that ballast merchant for 80 minutes? Ditto Josh Strauss. Would Thomson or the outstanding young Matt Fagerson be a better shout at No8? Generally, World Cup squads comprise five loose forwards. These calls will be fascinating.

The centres, once barren ground in Scottish rugby, are loaded with even more options. Three or four will go and who ever Townsend picks, he is going to leave a mountain of firepower sitting at home.

Sam Johnson has been a stupendous addition to Scotland and made himself the first-choice 12. Horne can cover fly-half and Townsend likes using him as a clever second distributor. Nick Grigg had a fine Six Nations, his defence noticeably improved. There’s Hutchinson to throw into the mix and we all know what Huw Jones can do.

How heartening, too, to see Duncan Taylor, whose last competitive match came in September and most recent Test 15 months before that, deemed fit enough to join the squad. Taylor is recovering from anterior cruciate ligament surgery, the latest in a heinous spate of injuries, and it’s a sign of how highly Townsend rates the big centre that he has been brought into camp so quickly.

The stricken Mark Bennett scored in Scotland’s last World Cup outing, the unspeakably painful quarter-final loss to Australia four years ago, but as things stand he won’t be in Japan this time around and nor will Matt Scott. Alex Dunbar has been besieged by injuries and is dreadfully short of game time. Kyle Steyn, Stafford McDowall, James Johnstone or Chris Dean all had compelling cases.

The areas of weakness are less apparent. You still sense Scotland are short of a monster loosehead prop. South Africans Oli Kebble and Pierre Schoeman would almost certainly be in this squad had their respective residency periods been completed.

As it is, Allan Dell is a shoo-in, and likely one of Jamie Bhatti, hitting form at the right time, and Gordon Reid, searching for a club, will make the cut. At tighthead, Simon Berghan has blossomed into a Test-calibre asset under Townsend and if the coach goes with the conventional route of taking five props, he should be included alongside WP Nel and Zander Fagerson.

There are positions, like tighthead, where the quality is obvious and the selections, barring injury, will be straightforward. Ali Price, Greig Laidlaw and George Horne are the top three scrum-halves. McInally, Brown and Turner will go as hookers.

Russell and Hastings are thrilling options at 10. And we can presume with near-absolute certainty that Hogg, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham will cover the back-three. This is some fantastic weaponry to wield.

The pool Townsend has to draw upon is undeniably strong, stronger than it has been for 20 years. Areas of historic famine have become bountiful. The long road to Yokohama has begun.

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For a Townsend squad announcement, this one was unpredictably predictable