Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend didn’t make himself available to discuss his first post-Lions international squad – he’s waiting until next week when it’s more of a playing than training squad.
That gives us ample opportunity to speculate wildly. Not that we ever need any excuse…
Townsend is a far more conservative coach than he ever was as a player, but he still likes a little mischief whenever he names his Scotland squads.
On his return to duties at Murrayfield after his Lions sojourn, the head coach has named a 36-strong squad of home-based players but threw in his usual bolter – Sharks back-rower (and occasional hooker) Dylan Richardson, a 22-year-old with a Scottish dad.
Every single squad has one of these. Whether Richardson gets through the crowd of bodies in the back row mix and into the team or not is a different matter.
But Townsend may choose not to play Jamie Ritchie – the summer test captain that never was – or Hamish Watson against the Tongans.
Rory Darge, on fire for Glasgow so far this season, looks likely to be the openside choice if Mish is told to hang fire for the Wallabies and Springboks.
Even without the exiles, spoiled for choice
Rugby is everything for me.
It gave me the opportunity and still does to live my passion, travel the world, form brotherly relationships and experience all seasons of what life has to offer.#WorldMentalHealthDay pic.twitter.com/kGeffBbevY
— Pierre Schoeman (@pierraSCHOEMIES) October 10, 2021
Tonga have burned Scotland before – they did for Andy Robinson back in the day – but what impresses you about this Scotland squad is the depth that just wasn’t there in Robbo’s day.
A good idea of this is the inclusion of Edinburgh prop Pierre Schoeman, as expected when he completed the Covid-shortened residency period this summer and became eligible.
There was a point while he was waiting he would have walked into the team. But not now, with the stalwart work of Rory Sutherland and Oli Kebble in 2020 and 2021. Jamie Bhatti’s having a resurgence as well.
There’s that back row mix with Josh Bayliss of Bath another contender later in the autumn. There’s the centres, where Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu looked really impressive for Glasgow, but James Lang is there and Mark Bennett has earned a recall. Lion Chris Harris isn’t likely to be moved from 13.
Scott Cummings’ injury has left them a little short of second row bodies. Townsend wants a look at Marshall Sykes and Jamie Hodgson, but one imagines Jonny Gray and Sam Skinner are fighting it out with Grant Gilchrist for the two slots.
As for the back three, Darcy Graham has been flying, and you’d expect Cole Forbes to get the call for at least one of these games.
Who’s at 10?
Well, it’ll be Finn Russell and/or Adam Hastings once the French and English-based players return. But when both those players got injured in the same game a year ago at this time, Townsend turned to Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt.
Neither are in this squad, and youngsters Ross Thompson and Charlie Savala are. I’d be quite happy to keep building the confidence and development of the impressive Thompson. He’s a lefty as well, which brings an added option.
But the whispers are that both Mike Blair and his erstwhile boss Gregor are serious about pushing Blair Kinghorn forward.
He’s 6ft 4in and 107 kgs, quick enough to have scored a hat-trick on the wing for Scotland. Some have thought Kinghorn could offer a different, potentially impactful dimension in his old schoolboy position.
His first pro coach, Alan Solomons, considered that but rejected the idea because of “long levers”. Blair’s become a much more rounded player since then.
No Vellacott? It’s a crowded cab rank at scrum-half
Ben Vellacott has been outstanding for Edinburgh in the opening two games of the #URC season.
Scotland have plenty of exciting options at scrum-half! pic.twitter.com/8g7PQO5Kyo
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) October 8, 2021
Ali Price, as the official Lions first-choice 9, will be in situe for the three games after Tonga. I’d expect George Horne to start against the Islanders.
Vellacott, once the subject of a tug of eligibility between Scotland and England, certainly deserves inclusion after a startling start to the season for Edinburgh. But Jamie Dobie was supposed to be capped this summer, and has done nothing to warrant non-selection.
I guess we should all be delighted we have five scrum-halves of this kind of quality. Remember Scott Steele started the last test but one. It’s that depth again.
The post-Cockers effect
I have no evidence other than anecdotal that there wasn’t a complete dovetailing of the former Edinburgh coach and the national squad management.
But it is odd that two players effectively rejected by Cockers in his latter days at Edinburgh have rediscovered themselves at Glasgow. Now both Rory Darge and Murray McCallum are both in this squad.
It happens. Jamie Bhatti and George Turner are two examples of players who were in the dog house at Edinburgh pre-Cockers. Both thrived and won caps once they moved to Glasgow.
For the past couple of months I’ve been struck by the difference at sporting events now that fans are back. The fervour is definitely inspiring some teams.
It was unquestionably a factor in lifting the Scotland football team to finally score some goals at Hampden last week.
Another of my favourite teams are baseball’s Boston Red Sox. They’ve been outstanding in the MLB play-offs, urged on by a hysterical crowd filling their ancient home, Fenway Park. Go Sox.
It’s happening everywhere. Now rugby gets its chance after the abject misery of an empty Murrayfield for a year.
The Tonga game is being set up as a fancy dress Halloween party, with £1 tickets for kids. Great idea. The Springbok test is already sold out and Australia is close.
The Scotland team actually played pretty well in Covid times despite the lack of lift from the stands. One can only imagine – and hope – what the positive effect a full Murrayfield might do for them.