At the moment, Sam Johnson, Chris Harris, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, Sione Tuipulotu, Rory Hutchinson, Huw Jones, James Lang and Cam Redpath are jostling for places. How does the coach whittle down such an impressive list from nine to four or five?
The Johnson-Harris axis has long been his go-to pairing. Both are in good form. But there are others in there with tantalising points of difference, if not the same experience or credit in the bank. Tuipulotu is a ferocious prospect on the charge, and there will be a hope his knock picked up against Exeter wasn’t serious; Bennett a wonderful blend of dynamism, intelligence and skill, is finally free from the shackles of injury; Hutchinson has been bamboozling defenders for fun at Northampton. Fraser Dingwall, his abrasive club colleague, had nailed his colours to England’s mast but those at Murrayfield may not have given up hope of luring him north again.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the return of Redpath, who, like Dingwall, appeared to be heading for England honours not too long ago. But a year after choosing Scotland, then screaming on to the international stage at Twickenham, the Bath man has scarcely played. At last, he has rid his body of its latest problem and started at stand-off in La Rochelle on Saturday. Redpath’s ceiling is sky-high and Townsend will be overjoyed to have him back.
Take a whistle-stop tour through the runners and riders, and the picture is rosy.
Rory Sutherland may not be battle-hardened thanks to injury and a red card a handful of minutes into his comeback game for Worcester, but Pierre Schoeman certainly is, having gone so well in his first Test foray during the autumn.
Oli Kebble covers both sides of the scrum, but Zander Fagerson is the undisputed top-tier tight-head. The old bull, WP Nel, could sneak in thanks to his fiendish scrummaging nous, a precious commodity when Joe Marler, Andrew Porter, Cyril Baille and others come calling.
At hooker, George Turner is in pole position to retain the jersey, but Stuart McInally has rediscovered some of his better stuff too. He is playing with real fire just now. Fraser Brown is back fit. Ewan Ashman has started four games in a row for Sale and his set-piece game has gone well, to add to the rambunctious ball-carrying that sets him apart.
Jonny Gray, Scott Cummings, Sam Skinner and Grant Gilchrist are likely to fill the boiler house. Jamie Hodgson, Richie Gray and Alex Craig could come back in to the reckoning.
One of the biggest questions is who starts at number eight, sandwiched between the wild dog flankers, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson. In November, Matt Fagerson and Josh Bayliss vied for the jersey. Fagerson is the favourite to start, and he played well for Glasgow before their capitulation in Exeter. The message from the autumn camp was that the ball lay firmly in Magnus Bradbury’s court. To torture that metaphor, Bradbury has picked up said ball and steamrolled a slew of opponents since. His form for Edinburgh has been compelling, and he offers a different approach to either of his main rivals.
Rory Darge will get his first international minutes this championship. Covid-19 and injury deprived him of caps in 2021, but his form has not suffered. At 21, he is an immensely exciting prospect, a tiger of an open-side in the Watson mould.
Ali Price will be the starting scrum-half, and a key leader. So too, Finn Russell, who has weaved some dazzling rugby for Racing these past few months.
The picture behind those half-backs is less clear. George Horne, the established deputy to Price, looks short of confidence and minutes despite his considerable abilities. With Jamie Dobie’s cab also parked on the Glasgow rank, he may be wise to explore options elsewhere, and find a club where he can become top dog. Ben Vellacott has been an effervescent game-breaker for Edinburgh in their newer, high-tempo style under Mike Blair. He is pushing hard to feature on the bench against England who, as with Redpath, came close to capping him.
Adam Hastings has found his feet impressively at Gloucester and alongside Blair Kinghorn, flourishing in his shift from full-back to stand-off, will back up Russell.
With Stuart Hogg leading from full-back, the spree of fit and firing wingers is encouraging. Duhan van der Merwe will play, no doubt, such is the unique weaponry he offers. Darcy Graham can be lethal in a different way. Kyle Steyn’s work rate, defensive acumen and effectiveness on the kick-chase have endeared him to Townsend.
Kyle Rowe is one of the form wingers at Townsend’s disposal, but is untested at international level. Byron McGuigan, judo throws aside, has been a menace for Sale. A recall for Sean Maitland, given the ruthless business of Six Nations rugby, would not be a shock despite his advancing years. Townsend was keen to stress how highly the staff think of the Saracen despite his autumn omission. Rufus McLean may miss out.
If you’re a Scot, you look at this plethora of options in virtually every berth, and wonder when you last had it so good. Yet you also cast an eye over what is happening at Twickenham and in Paris, across in Dublin and down in Cardiff, and you question whether it will be good enough.
Scotland have long since emerged from the doldrums that engulfed them for much of the professional era. They have been taught a vast syllabus of harsh lessons and earned deeper scars than the Joker. They have improved, no doubt, and are still improving. But are they climbing fast enough? Are they rising and developing at a quicker pace than their championship rivals?
Look at the autumn, where England went without several of key players and toppled the Springboks in an epic, having put twice as many points on Australia as Scotland managed. Wales got closer to the world champions than did the Scots. Ireland bludgeoned New Zealand All Black and blue, and France battered then bamboozled the Kiwis in Paris.
Can Scotland muster such a performance, and if so, can they back it up week after week? The two pro-teams have gone very well domestically, but Edinburgh have not faced any of the URC’s true powerhouses, and Glasgow were eviscerated with harrowing ease in the final quarter at Sandy Park. A Glasgow side heavily armed with international starters.
There is, too, the hint of a now-or-never vibe building around this group. The Hoggs, Russells, Watsons, Prices, Harrises and Grays are in their peak years. They’re all between 27 and 31. They are, by conventional wisdom, in their prime as rugby players. They have grown with their team and though they have famous wins to savour, what they are missing dearly is a championship. These next few seasons will be their best opportunities to win something, to end the Scottish Six Nations drought that has entered its third decade.
Townsend’s Scotland are the hoodoo smashers. They have brought the grimmest of records at Twickenham, in Paris and in Wales to shuddering halts. These were colossal triumphs, if not in full, cacophonous stadia. But they were interspersed with maddening losses – think of the brain-combusting manner in which victory was thrown away against Wales last year, or the meekness of the defeat by Ireland.
After opening the tournament with a superb win in England, and carving out a 17-3 lead over Wales a week later, the 2021 campaign was an almighty missed opportunity. Now is the time to come of age as contenders. For Scotland, and this talented generation, cannot afford to exist in a rugby Groundhog Day, looking back at what might have been.