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Scottish squad selection was battleground

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Forget the tedious unveiling ceremony... Scotland's RWC squad was their most fiercely contested selection of the professional era

The cat was out of the bag long before supporters began to gather at Linlithgow Palace on Tuesday, huddling under umbrellas with drizzle streaking young faces before the live webstream juddered into life, the crooning fanfare pealed out and the Scotland players marched one by one from the ruin to the podium in a tedious unveiling ceremony.

Squads are invariably leaked these days, so prolifically so that very seldom does a coach have the pure pleasure of breaking news to a nation when he reads the names from his sheet. As announcements go, this one looked plodding and haphazard.

By the time Gregor Townsend took the stage and introduced the 31 men who will represent Scotland in Japan, it was common knowledge that Huw Jones, an out-of-favour darling of the Scottish support, and Rory Hutchinson, seen as the coming rapier in midfield, would not be among them.

In discarding the two centres, Townsend has chosen to leave some serious firepower at home. Rule Jones out of this squad as recently as a year ago and you would have been given a thorough checking over for a lobotomy scar. It would have been virtually unthinkable to ditch a player of such devastating attacking prowess and a character who seems to revel on the grandest of stages.

Jones at his best is probably the mightiest attacking force Townsend can wield at centre, but we haven’t seen the Glasgow man’s best for an awfully long time. His stock has plummeted like a stone. Hutchinson was expected to take his place as the dazzling angle-cutter in midfield, but he too has been deemed surplus to requirements. 

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Townsend is a free-thinking rugby man. He does not shirk these calls – in fact, you get the sense he delights in slinging curveballs and catching onlookers and adversaries alike on the hop. 

And you could see the ruminations here. Could he hang his hat on Jones to suddenly roar back to form and come to the party when it really mattered? Could he rely on Hutchinson to bring his glorious half-season with Northampton Saints to bear in Japan? Or better to place faith in steadier options with far less pizzazz but other points of difference?

Townsend says he put “hard-working” men with “strong defensive attributes” first. The worry is that by leaving behind X-factor players like Jones and Hutchinson, the coach leaves himself with an abundance of good soldiers but precious little of the midfield inspiration Scotland might need when the chips are down. 

Jones’ defence is certainly suspect, but as attacking presences, he and Hutchinson are orders of magnitude more threatening than Chris Harris or Pete Horne, who have been chosen ahead of them.

When you do without players of this calibre, you had better make sure those you take in their stead are delivering something better, something vitally different, or both. Duncan Taylor, fantastic and versatile and at long last fit, ticks that box. So does Sam Johnson, last season’s outstanding break-out act at inside centre.

Harris has a different skillset to Jones and Hutchinson. He brings defensive nous and ballast where the other two bring flair. Townsend is clearly confident he can add steel to a team that is too often pretty but soft. Whether he can add much more than that on the international stage remains to be seen. Taking him, especially ahead of Hutchinson, is a huge gamble.

 

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And then there is the vexed case of Horne. You get the feeling that he could start every game in Japan, score a try in each match and a hat-trick in the final as Scotland went all the way to the Webb Ellis Cup, negotiate the country’s continued participation in the European single market, strike new oil in the North Sea, lead the national football team to Euro 2020 and fix Andy Murray’s hip and still be looked down upon by the masses at Murrayfield.

The little Fifer is probably the most driven man in the squad, has been part of some of Glasgow and Scotland’s greatest days under Townsend, yet has never emphatically claimed the No12 jersey as his own, nor delivered a commanding Test performance in his outings at fly-half. He is a fine player and an influential character, but he makes too many elementary mistakes for an international of over 40 caps. The World Cup is no place for these errors.

The inclusions of Harris and Horne ahead of Jones and Hutchinson are monumental calls, decisions by which Scotland’s campaign may live or die. In examining Horne’s virtues, you have to take a look at Adam Hastings, who goes as the back-up fly-half to Finn Russell. Hastings is callow and, like the Russell of several years ago, can infuriate, but he orchestrates an all-action Glasgow attack on a weekly basis.

Russell is likely to start every pool match barring the clash with hapless Russia, where Horne or Hastings ought to be able to steer Scotland to a comfortable victory. But starting with either against Ireland, Samoa, Japan, or in a knock-out match? That’s not a good place to be. The bottom line to all the reflection is that an injury to Russell, now one of Europe’s very top pivots, strikes a hammer blow to Scotland’s hopes.

The rest of the squad, led by Edinburgh’s colossus Stuart McInally, yields no great shocks. Scott Cummings has done a hell of a job in forcing his case as one of the four lock forwards. The Glasgow man is raw and athletic and very much a Townsend player with his galloping surges in open prairie. Gordon Reid’s set-piece strengths trump Jamie Bhatti’s dynamism at loosehead. Grant Stewart falls just short at hooker.

In the back row, Josh Strauss needed a big summer series but didn’t produce one. Magnus Bradbury might have made it were it not for a rib injury keeping him out of all three warm-up Tests to date. Matt Fagerson is desperately unlucky after a barnstorming season with Glasgow, but Ryan Wilson’s leadership and Blade Thomson’s versatility keep him out. By ditching Bradbury, Strauss and Fagerson, Townsend is omitting a lot of ball-carrying muscle, and placing a lot of faith in Wilson and Thomson to rupture the gain-line.

The comforting truth amid the selection angst is that those who have made it have ousted some serious competition in doing so. Leaving aside a truly equivalent rival to Russell, if you were to compile an unselected Scotland XV, you could put together a very decent unit. 

A front row of Bhatti, Stewart and D’arcy Rae. Tim Swinson and Richie Gray in the engine room, with Bradbury, John Hardie and Matt Fagerson in behind them and Rob Harley, Gary Graham or Adam Ashe as extra cover. 

Henry Pyrgos and Duncan Weir could be your half-backs. Almost any two of Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett, Nick Grigg, Stafford McDowall, Jones or Hutchinson would make a cracking midfield pair, with Kyle Steyn, Lee Jones and Byron McGuigan the prospective back three.

Scotland celebrate try

Rory Hutchinson celebrates with his Scotland team-mates after scoring against Georgia last Saturday, but it wasn’t enough for him to make RWC (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

This has been the most fiercely contested selection of the professional era, a pool of riches Scotland has not known for decades. There is bounty and, as ever, there is anxiety at the kind of weaponry Scotland are toting and how it matches up to the arsenals of their rivals.

The warm-up Tests against France and Georgia have told us little, save what we already know – Townsend’s Scotland are formidable at home but don’t travel well, can weave some wonderful attacking rugby but wilt in the face of physical brutality. There are major questions and we won’t know the answers until the serious stuff gets going.

It has been fiendishly hard to second-guess Townsend and even harder to predict what his team, by turns mesmeric and disastrous, will deliver come the showpiece. 

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Forget the tedious unveiling ceremony... Scotland's RWC squad was their most fiercely contested selection of the professional era