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FEATURE Shock call-ups and Lions left out: Scotland Six Nations squad takeaways

Shock call-ups and Lions left out: Scotland Six Nations squad takeaways
5 months ago

If Scotland’s Six Nations squad announcement was always going to struggle to generate shockwaves on the day Wales flyer Louis Rees-Zammit stunned rugby by quitting to pursue an NFL career, there was more than a ripple of surprise at some of the plotlines bubbling below the surface.

Although the inclusion of Sale wing Arron Reed had been heavily trailed, the ‘Toonie tombola’ was dusted off in style with the revelation of three more uncapped players in props Alec Hepburn and Will Hurd plus fledgling Edinburgh wing Harry Paterson, a 22-year-old bolter with just eight senior games under his belt.

Eyebrows were also raised by the exclusion of three proven operators – Hamish Watson, Rory Sutherland and Chris Harris – who played Test rugby for the British and Irish Lions in 2021.

RugbyPass takes a closer look at some of the main talking points to emerge from Gregor Townsend’s 39-man squad.

Scotland will cast their net wide

With precious little talent emerging through the age-group pathways domestically, Townsend has made no bones about scouring the rest of the world in search of Scottish-qualified players.

The latest converts are Sale wing Reed, who represented England at Under-20s level, Leicestershire-born Tigers tighthead Hurd, who qualifies for Scotland via a grandmother and previously played for the U20s, and most intriguingly Alec Hepburn, Exeter’s Australia born-and-raised loosehead who previously won six caps for England in 2018 via residency but having not worn the red rose since, can now contemplate donning the thistle thanks to his Scotland-born father.

Hepburn, picked ahead of France-based Sutherland, “can go straight in and play Test level” according to Townsend, and can be expected to challenge Jamie Bhatti as back-up to first-choice loosehead Pierre Schoeman.

Champions Cup
Alec Hepburn, centre, was part of Exeter Chiefs’ Premiership and Champions Cup double winning squad in 2020 (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Nationality, Townsend concedes, is a “fluid concept” when it comes to international rugby. “We have to compete with all the other countries looking at players who are dual and triple qualified so you have to be open-minded with everyone,” he said. “We’ve got to pick who we believe is the best player to help us win and that’s only right and what our supporters, I believe, would want us to do.

“Ideally, we’d be producing more players that come through the Scottish pathway but it’s never been as straightforward as that. A lot of Scots travel, a lot of Scots bring their families up outside of Scotland and they’re proud when their lads and girls play for Scotland, so we’ve got to make sure we’re aware of these players who are dual qualified.”

Townsend was more evasive on the subject of whether Reed’s Sale team-mates Tom Roebuck and GusWarr had fully committed to Scotland yet, having chatted to both players “over a number of weeks”. “They are players of interest for us who are playing regularly for their clubs. They will be people that we watch and give feedback to. They’re not in our squad right now for different reasons.”

The Cardiff duo of tight-head prop Rhys Litterick – who has a Glaswegian grandfather – and full-back Jacob Beetham, who has played for Wales U20s but also qualifies for Scotland and England, are also on his radar.

“Again these are players who are dual-qualified and not in the Wales squad,” he added. “I’d imagine they’ll continue talking to Wales and we are certainly watching and giving them feedback from a Scottish perspective as well.”

Hamish Watson not retired, but his days may be numbered

It would be foolish in the extreme to write off a player as fiercely competitive as 32-year-old Watson, a trusted and consistent performer since the start of Townsend’s tenure in 2017.

With first-choice openside Rory Darge – one of those chosen ahead of him – only three weeks into a projected six-to-eight-week injury and an outside bet, at best, to be involved in the opening rounds of the Six Nations, one more injury among the back-row contingent over the next fortnight could see the popular ‘Mish’ swiftly restored to the squad.

But after only a bit-part role in the World Cup, where Watson was reduced to a solitary outing in the rout of Romania, there is a sense Townsend is keen to explore other, younger, alternatives for the number seven jersey at the start of a new four-year cycle, with the form of Edinburgh team-mate Luke Crosbie and Saracens’ Andy Christie cited as the primary reasons for his exclusion.

“They’ve been really good this year,” said the head coach.  “And when you’re competing as opensides, we need to make sure we have a blend of players who can also play number eight as well as lineout forwards in our squad too.”

Scotland <a href=
South Africa Springboks” width=”1024″ height=”573″ /> Hamish Watson has struggled for international minutes over the past year (Photo by PA)

With Jamie Ritchie also periodically deployed at openside for club and country, Watson may be currently as low as fifth on Townsend’s openside depth chart. Nevertheless, a gauntlet of sorts was thrown down to the 59-cap flanker as Townsend rejected the notion time was being called on his international career.

“Hamish is good enough to play Test rugby tomorrow so maybe this disappointment will have a positive effect as well and he’ll go for it in the one game before the break for Edinburgh and put pressure on that selection,” he added. “But physically Hamish has a lot of rugby left in him.”

Jamie Ritchie is not nailed on to retain the captaincy

Ritchie spent the last hour of Scotland’s World Cup dissection by Ireland watching from the bench after picking up an early injury, two weeks after a head knock had forced him off half an hour into their second pool game against Tonga.

If those setbacks prevented the Edinburgh flanker from wielding greater influence on proceedings, he has played half a dozen games since returning from the tournament and been in decent form – if not the barnstorming variety – having had the burden of co-captaincy removed at his club.

But another injury – this time a jaw issue which has kept him out for the past couple of weeks – has left him needing a big performance in Friday’s Challenge Cup pool match at Scarlets to put doubts over his position to bed.

“He’ll be one of the favourites to be captain, but we’ll leave that decision until after the weekend,” said Townsend, who is due to be accompanied by his on-field leader to the official Six Nations launch event in Dublin on Monday.

Jamie Ritchie
Jamie Ritchie was forced off in Scotland’s World Cup hammering by Ireland and picked up another injury since (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Townsend proceeded to name Rory Darge, who led Scotland in their first Word Cup warm-up Test against Italy, Finn Russell – who did the job for the first time against France last summer – and Sione Tuipulotu, who has captained Glasgow recently in the absence of Kyle Steyn, as well as Grant Gilchrist, who has led Scotland four times under Townsend and continues to captain Edinburgh, as possible alternatives should he decide a new leader is required during the Six Nations.

Asked why he was thinking of changing his captain, the head coach stressed the form of other contenders meant Ritchie was not necessarily a shoo-in for a starting place.

“If he plays well, he puts himself in a strong position,” Townsend said. “The first role of our leaders is to play well. That’s the best way to lead because that means you get in the team. Jamie has missed the last two or three weeks and is up against some players who are playing really well in recent weeks, so he knows he has to deliver a performance this week, which I’m sure he will. Because there’s so much competition in that back row, we’ve got to make sure we pick players who are playing well, are in form and will help us win.”

Rory Hutchinson’s form has cost Chris Harris his place

From the middle of the 2020 Six Nations to the end of the 2022 championship, Chris Harris started 19 of Scotland’s 21 Tests and finished that year still firmly established as the defensive lynchpin in their backline, having played a Test for the Lions in 2021.

But the international rebirth of Huw Jones last year and the success of his partnership with Tuipulotu forced Harris down the pecking order as Scotland sought to rediscover the attacking elan of the early years of Townsend’s tenure.

Despite starting twice at the recent World Cup, Gloucester centre Harris, now 33, has been left out of a squad altogether for the first time since before the 2019 World Cup, though Townsend noted he has “actually played well the last two or three weeks”.

Chris Harris Six Nations
Once an integral part of Townsend’s midfield, Chris Harris now finds himself out of the squad (Photo by PA)

With the outstanding form of Stafford McDowall at inside centre for Glasgow, the ‘Huwipulotu’ combination has only been seen once this season at club level, against Bayonne, with Tuipulotu starting all bar one game at 13 and Jones forced to move to the wing in recent weeks to help cover a spate of back-three injuries.

With Cameron Redpath also in prime form alongside Russell at Bath, Townsend is not short of midfield options. The recent form of Northampton’s Rory Hutchinson, last seen in a Scotland jersey at full-back on the 2022 summer tour of Argentina, has also pushed Harris further towards the periphery.

“Rory has really come through in the last month,” Townsend said. “He missed about six weeks with injury so he’s had to compete hard to get into the Northampton team, but since he’s been back in that team he’s performed really well.

“Although Rory can play at 15, his big strengths are suited to playing on the front line, getting on ball and putting people in spaces, playing at 12 or 13, probably 13 in our view right now.”

Will Scotland be better for their RWC woes?

For all the attention on the new faces and tinkering around the edges of the squad, there is likely to be a largely familiar look to the side that runs out in Cardiff – where Scotland have not won in 22 years – on 3 February.

Barely three months on from the mother of all shellackings the Scots suffered at the hands of a rampant Ireland in Paris, Townsend’s first task when he reassembles his squad next week is to sift through the psychological rubble of that miserable humiliation and convince his players they are still a match for Europe’s elite.

If a second successive World Cup pool-stage exit had an air of inevitability about it as far back as the draw for France 2023 was made, the failure to live with the Springboks beyond the opening 40 minutes, and the Irish for barely 15 – stung a group who expected far more of themselves.

“I think it takes a while to process, and each individual has their own way,” said Townsend when asked whether his players were over the trauma yet. While some barely paused for breath before plunging straight back into club rugby on their return from Paris – the likes of Ben White and Russell in new environments – others such as Tuipulotu have spoken of the hurt from the World Cup “lasting so long”.

Gregor Townsend
Scotland’s pool stage exit, losing to South Africa and Ireland, left emotional wounds on some of their players (Photo by PA)

“Players get the benefit of going back to play for a different team and get over the defeat and the disappointment that we all suffered in that Ireland game in particular,” Townsend said. “But we have to make sure that we learn from that experience. There was so much good that went on leading up to that Ireland game. The training camp, the guys were in brilliant condition, the way they played in the four warm-up games, and the way they played in most of the World Cup.

“We were beaten by the better team – clearly Ireland played really well that day – but there were things that we could have done better. We’ve got to use that defeat, that experience, not just as a motivator but as a real learning point. We’re going to be a better team for that, and I’m sure we will be.”

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Allsquare 152 days ago

Time to limit the family descent to just parents

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