I don’t know if Gregor Townsend is a religious man, but he might be offering a few prayers of thanks for the heavenly 6’6 106kg gift arriving on his doorstep this autumn from Gisborne, New Zealand by way of West Wales.
The rugby gods have bestowed upon him – and Scotland – Blade Thomson, an exquisitely-named thoroughbred forward who, from the top of his scrum cap to the soles of his sprawling boots looks every inch a Townsend player.
Born and raised in New Zealand, Thomson qualifies for Scotland through his grandparents. He joined the Scarlets from the Hurricanes this summer with, by his own admission, one eye on Test honours, and has already been a stupendous asset to the region.
An explosive runner and tackler with a sharp turn of pace, Thomson’s handling is delightful. He is still only 27, and the prevailing belief in New Zealand is that were it not for two serious shoulder injuries, he would be an All Black by now. At any rate, Thomson’s game intelligence is unmistakably Kiwi and a vital component of any Test-quality back-row’s arsenal.
What’s more, Scarlets are paying his salary.
Continue reading below…
He can play at lock or on the blind-side flank, but it is at number eight where Townsend can most effectively unshackle his new breakaway.
Scotland don’t have a behemoth eight with the brains to match, the sort of hulking monster who can gobble up yards, mangle defenders and deliver clean off-loads, as Billy Vunipola, Louis Picamoles and Viliame Mata do with brutal efficiency.
Dave Denton has the size but not the guile. Matt Fagerson, a brilliant prospect at 20, has the guile but not the size. Ryan Wilson is a workhorse and a leader but he too lacks heft and is better deployed on the flank, where he can be a gleefully disruptive rascal.
Poor Josh Strauss is not so much out in the cold as frozen in a giant block of ice with the phrase “Fiji 2017” carved onto it – penance, it seems, for his performance in the Suva beating Scotland took last summer. Joking aside, he has scarcely featured for a struggling Sale Sharks side this season.
Assuming there are no shoulder relapses, in Thomson, Scotland might have found a precious alternative – a big frame with the skills and wits to propel the searing rugby that any Townsend team will play.
And forget, for a moment, Thomson’s vivid talents as a rugby player. Any person who can set foot on the paddock and deliver the sort of barnstorming stuff Thomson did for Scarlets against Ospreys days after the death of someone “very, very close” to him is a bloke of towering character.
The rangy Kiwi is the most exciting inclusion the 40-strong group Townsend has chosen to face Wales, Fiji, South Africa and Argentina, but there are others too whose allure is huge.
Townsend has previous when it comes to left-field call-ups. He almost seems to take pleasure in pulling Scottish-qualified rabbits from hats, simply to mystify journalists. Certainly, he was chuckling as a frantic Scottish press pack burned through enough mobile data to keep the population of Luxembourg online for a month, desperately Googling the name “Sam Skinner”.
What the virtual trawling indicated was an extremely shrewd selection. Another formidable athlete. Another leader, playing in a highly successful Exeter Chiefs team, coached by the highly respected Rob Baxter. The lock is, by all accounts, a line-out geek, and Townsend was clearly pretty chuffed to have convinced him to throw his lot in with Scotland, having won England age-grade honours.
He spoke about Skinner – who is still just 23 and eligible through his father – in glowing terms, praising his set-piece nous, his “decision-making in attack and defence” and his running lines.
The Chiefs man’s emergence is all the more timely given Richie Gray, a wonderful second-row who Townsend has scarcely had a chance to utilise, is out yet again. A second back operation in a little over a year is distinctly grim news.
The third new face belongs to Sam Johnson, the direct Australian centre with excellent distribution who Townsend signed while in charge of Glasgow three years ago. His inclusion – having served his residency period – is only mildly surprising because he has not played for Warriors this season after suffering a head injury during a summer friendly.
Elsewhere, among the bruisers, Zander Fageron’s lay-off means Edinburgh trio WP Nel, Simon Berghan and Murray McCallum will compete for the tight-head berth. Scotland’s most-capped international, Ross Ford, is fit again and back in the squad as one of four hooking options. In the absence of John Barclay, another hooker, Stuart McInally is the most obvious choice of captain.
Young workhorse Jamie Ritchie will, you’d imagine, get at least one start on the open-side flank – four Tests in four weeks is too much to ask of anyone in the modern game, particularly one who plays with the ferocious effervescence of Hamish Watson.
What about the backline? There’s a lot of firepower. Boat-loads of it. Scotland won’t have Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett or Duncan Taylor for any of the Tests – outrageously talented players logging more time on the treatment table. They will be shorn of Six Nations starters Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Sean Maitland, and Premiership regulars Chris Harris and Byron McGuigan, for the first out-of-window match in Cardiff.
Still, you look at that posse of backs and purr. George Horne, Ali Price and Henry Pyrgos are terrific scrum-halves, each of whom bring different skills to the party. Adam Hastings is green, but doing a fine job as Glasgow’s new maverick pivot. Russell, their old one, is adapting very nicely indeed to life in Paris with Racing 92.
Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar could form an exhilarating centre partnership. Matt Scott is back in Edinburgh and has been an outstanding presence in Richard Cockerill’s midfield. There’s Johnson and Pete Horne to throw into the mix too. Although you feel massively for the stricken Taylor and Bennett, two men who must have smashed every mirror, booted every black cat and walked under every ladder in Scotland so wretched is their luck.
Without Hogg, Blair Kinghorn should get the chance to pit himself against new and deadly opposition, and enhance his growing reputation as a devastating attacker. More pointedly, the full-back’s defence and one-on-one tackling, an area that recent performances suggest could do with some work, will come under stern examination.
It is particularly pleasing to see Dougie Fife and Lee Jones, two wingers who have worked hard on their skills and flourished on the Sevens World Series continue to reap the rewards of their toil. For a time, each was a forgotten man. Now, both are blossoming again, better and more confident than when they won their first caps several years ago.
Scotland will face four varied and seriously dangerous teams, from the Lions of Wales to the rugby phenomenon of Fiji, the Springboks titans and Mario Ledesma’s resurgent Pumas, smarting from the shellacking Scotland inflicted upon them four months ago on their own patch.
This squad is a fascinating melting pot of narratives and opportunity. What Townsend has at his disposal, and how he chooses to configure it, will beguile. A riveting November beckons.
Tell us what you think about the Rugby World Cup and you could win £100