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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Townsend should stick close to his generational players for the end of this era

Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are still the keys to Scotland in 2022/23.
Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are still the keys to Scotland in 2022/23.

We’re obviously not in the habit of encouraging generational players to the exit door in Scottish international rugby. It’s not as if we’ve ever had a shedload of them.

But the World Cup – stupidly in my opinion – has become a quadrennial staging post for the game. Contracts, both with coaches and players, now generally run on World Cup cycles.

Players in turn tend to take that opportunity to weigh up options once the tournament is done. Many older players obviously see it as the time to stand down from the international game.

An era ends in France?

At the end of this long and gruelling season come the international summer camps followed by the 2023 RWC tournament in France.

When Scotland start their campaign against champions South Africa in Marseille on September 10 next year, Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson will be 31, and Finn Russell turns that age during the tournament.

Add into that, Gregor Townsend’s current contract will be up at the end of the tournament. He’ll have been Scotland’s head coach for six years, the longest tenured since rugby went pro, probably 70 games’ worth by the time the RWC’s done.

Even if the rest of 2022 and 2023 are exceptional, after France, it’ll most likely be time to move on.

Thus in the next few days Townsend will name – probably – his last Autumn Tests squad. As – despite the views of maybe hasty and frustrated journalists – he’s going to be taking us to France, what counts for him should count for his personnel.

That is; it’s too late to tear up the whole thing now. The prospects of beating South Africa and Townsend’s nemesis Ireland in the World Cup pool seem remote, but in the words of the great NFL coach Bill Parcells: there’s a way to win every game, you just have to find it.

And I don’t believe that Scotland are finding it by being clever-clever and ditching our very best players. It’s not so long back that they were instrumental in a (occasionally) successful Scottish team. I don’t believe that any of them have gone over the hill in the last couple of years.

Hogg, Russell, Watson still the key players

That should mean some continuity. Stuart Hogg should remain captain – I suspect he has the support of the majority of players and you’re risking fractures in morale becoming chasms by deposing him.

Russell has to be the 10. He looks fit and trim playing for Racing this season, he was obviously carrying a number of problematic niggles during a Lions-elongated 2021-22 season.

Nothing Blair Kinghorn has done in the 10 shirt convinces me he’s a real alternative. But he’ll play in the first game against Australia at the end of this month because it’s out of the international window.

Watson we should wrap in cotton wool this season. Just give him barely enough rugby to keep him hungry.

Although Rory Darge – sadly injured – is their heir apparent, Scotland have played much better with Watson than without him every time since the last World Cup. His injury in that tournament, in my opinion, ultimately cost Scotland a quarter-final.

The Darcy-Duhan wing combo is a fixture. Zander Fagerson and Jamie Ritchie also. Other than those, there’s enough selectiorial scope for Townsend to keep himself entertained.

I’m sure he’s keen to get Cam Redpath back and fully involved, even if Bath haven’t had the greatest of starts to the Gallagher Premiership. Sione Tuipulotu is having a strong start to the season at Glasgow and will probably play against the Wallabies. A midfield shake-up might not be a bad thing.

At the moment, I’m fully for George Horne at scrum-half. He’s been far and away the best 9 so far this domestic season. It’s especially pleasing since he seemed to be lost at Glasgow when Danny Wilson was there.

There will be injuries in this year, and given its Scotland it won’t be seamless anyway.

But if it’s to be the end of an era of Townsend and his very best players, then they should all have the chance to make it as good as possible.

Dempsey’s eligibility not quite the same as the ‘projects’

Townsend likes a flier for his squads, but we may all have seen this year’s coming. It’s possible that Jack Dempsey, Glasgow’s former Wallaby No 8, will be eligible.

This is because of World Rugby’s new three-year “stand-down” rule. Really, the rule was intended to aid the island nations “recapture” players – mostly former All Blacks and Wallabies. Rather than complicate things by applying it just to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, they’ve just done it carte-blanche.

The last of Dempsey’s 14 caps for Australia was three years ago. He has a Scottish grandfather.

Generally I’m fine with playing the eligibility rules as far as they go – with Scotland’s small player base, to do otherwise would be simple self-harm.

This case is slightly different, though. Nel and Schoeman and Johnson and Van der Merwe and Visser all showed a prior commitment to Scotland over years rather than months.

Scotland could certainly use a player of Dempsey’s skills – he’s exactly the hard-carrying No 8 we’ve been lacking. But I accept that the unease of some to the other “project players” will be doubled on this one.

The other possible “stand-down” player upcoming has been Ulster scrum-half John Cooney, who last played for Ireland in 2020 and whose father is from Blantyre.

I don’t think this is really even a starter. I can’t remember the last time Scotland weren’t pretty well off for 9s. At the moment with Ali Price, George Horne, Ben White, Ben Vellacott and Jamie Dobie, the need for a 32-year-old isn’t exactly pressing.