Expect a few newbies in Gregor Townsend's Six Nations squad
Just when we thought it was safe to go back into the Six Nations waters, Scotland have an unprecedented injury crisis across the board which is affecting the big men more than most, removing Gregor Townsend’s first and second choice props on either side of the scrum.
On the loosehead side, Ally Dickinson’s long injury woes only get longer and his back-up, Allan Dell, is also sidelined. Elsewhere the news is marginally better, with Rory Sutherland back in harness, although rusty after a long lay-off himself, with Jamie Bhatt my favourite to start at in Cardiff after impressing in the autumn and Gordon Reid offering some experience. On the right-hand side of the scrum, WP Nel broke his arm and Zander Fagerson dropped a weight which landed on his foot. He is a man of God but still you fancy the odd blasphemy may have escaped his lips.
Simon Berghan misses the Cardiff trip due to suspension but may find himself hurried back into the saddle shortly thereafter.
Tighthead is such a vital position but Townsend’s options are woefully limited. Jon Welsh is favourite to win his first cap since that fateful World Cup quarter-final against the Wallabies.
And one tighthead won’t do; these days you need two, so Townsend may look to Glasgow’s D’Arcy Rae who is not a flash player but his set-piece work is, like the man himself, pretty solid. Rae is yet to be capped but with so many injuries that opening weekend may be his best chance.
Second rows take care of themselves pretty much although it is worth asking what the heck Anton Bresler was doing clogging up one professional pathway if the South African “project player” was never good enough to play for Scotland?
He misses the first three weekends of competition with an injured finger but it won’t be too long beforeScott Cummingsmakes his debut. The young lock has it all: athleticism, handling skills and the power he generates in the contact zone will only increase over time.
Townsend is a big fan of Jonny Gray, although there is an argument in favour of starting the twin Edinburgh players, Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist, together. Richie Gray is fit again in the south of France but short of matches.
The big questions come in the third row of the scrum where Townsend seemed to defy best practice in the autumn and still flourished mightily in November as a result.
Everyone talks about getting the balance of the back row right, but Townsend persists in picking two openside flankers and has done away with a big, bruising ball-carrier at either six or eight.
Either Townsend is reinventing the rugby wheel, which would be remarkable, or Scotland’s lack of breakaway beef will haunt them when the big packs that dominate European rugby take the game to Townsend’s lightweight eight.
Six Nations rugby is a very different animal to the “friendlies” that populate the summer and autumn; they are incredibly difficult to win, especially away from home, and Scotland have three games on the road. Everyone knows everyone’s game inside out and, after watching the autumn series, no one will play Scotland at their fast-and-loose style of running rugby the way New Zealand and Australia did.
The next conundrum for Townsend is at half-back. Finn Russell remains untouchable at stand-off, although playing below his best, but Greig Laidlaw is returning from injury and Ali Price has been less than convincing of late.
Much of Laidlaw’s allure comes from his unquestioned leadership skills and his priceless ability to convert penalties into points, but Scotland have both aspects covered. John Barclay has stepped up as Test captain and done a pretty good job with the obvious exception of Twickenham last season.
Whatever his struggles elsewhere, Russell has been impressively consistent off the tee and is one of the Pro14’s leading marksmen this season.
Having set his stall out, it is difficult to see Townsend revert to Laidlaw when Price offers a much slicker service and a threat with the ball in hand. One presumes that the little Glasgow scrummy will unearth his mojo sometime between now and 3 February.
There is an outside chance that Townsend will give Gloucester’s Ben Vellacott a taste of Six Nations action but why bother when he can whistle up George Horne? The little man is like Price but on speed. When he joined the Scotland sevens squad the worry was he was too slow. When he left it, Horne was electric, at least over the all-important first 20.
In the outside backs, injury again threatens to derail Scottish hopes of a successful season because Townsend’s best attacking back, Stuart Hogg, has been worryingly absent since that fateful New Zealand Test with what is described as a “hip injury”. His potential replacement, Blair Kinghorn, leads the Pro14 in metres gained and defenders beaten.
Duncan Taylor, Scotland’s best defensive co-ordinator, lasted just 23 minutes on his return to action last weekend before being replaced. Taylor did not appear in Saracens’ match day 23 this weekend but word is that he should be right for Cardiff.
Townsend will certainly hope so, because the Scotland boss needs both Hogg and Taylor fit and on the field if Scotland are to enjoy a successful Six Nations.