Who replaces Darcy Graham? The Edinburgh winger was outstanding in the autumn, starting all four internationals and ending the series with four tries, one against New Zealand and a hat-trick against Argentina. A knee injury sustained in Edinburgh’s defeat by Munster in early December means he will miss the bulk of the Six Nations, with Townsend hoping he will return for the round 4 match against Ireland on March 12. If we assume Duhan van der Merwe will start on the left wing, Scotland’s options on the opposite flank are new boy Ruaridh McConnochie, the recalled Sean Maitland, on-form Kyle Steyn and the adaptable Blair Kinghorn. Kinghorn’s versatility is both a blessing and a curse and it’s hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the Edinburgh man who has spent the last two seasons being told he’s a stand-off but has played his last three matches on the wing. He is the ultimate utility back and his ability to cover 10, any of the back three positions and perhaps even centre makes him a stick-on for the bench. McConnochie is an interesting selection and the Bath wing offers a physical threat but it would be a surprise if he were to start at Twickenham. Maitland didn’t get a sniff with Scotland last season but at 34 is still a regular with Saracens and has a decent record in the Calcutta Cup. He was part of the winning Scotland teams at Murrayfield in 2017 - when he scored a try - and at Twickenham in 2021. Steyn has looked good for Glasgow since returning from a hamstring injury and can also cover centre so may have to be content with a replacements’ role as Maitland gets the nod.
Ali Price has been a mainstay at nine since Greig Laidlaw bowed out after the 2019 Rugby World Cup. During that time he has evolved into a first-class scrum-half as evidenced by his involvement in all three Lions Test matches in South Africa in 2021. Price was preferred to Conor Murray, starting twice against the Springboks and appearing as a replacement once. There is no doubting Price’s big-match temperament but the 58-times capped Glasgow man has found himself playing second fiddle to George Horne at the Warriors for large parts of this season. Horne has been excellent; sharp and surefooted with his goalkicking. He is also in Townsend’s squad but has never started a Six Nations match for Scotland. The third option at scrum-half is Ben White, who scored a memorable try from the bench on his Test debut in last season’s Calcutta Cup match. This one is a big call for the Scotland coach but Price has rarely let Scotland down and Townsend is likely to stay loyal to a player who has long been part of the squad’s leadership group. Selection for the remaining positions in the backline should be relatively straightforward. Fitness permitting, you would expect to see Stuart Hogg at full-back, Chris Harris at outside centre, Sione Tuipulotu at inside centre and Finn Russell at stand-off.
Fraser Brown looks revitalised after a couple of injury-interrupted seasons and was excellent as starting hooker in the final two autumn Tests against New Zealand and Argentina. A couple of tries at the weekend in Glasgow’s away win over the Dragons shows he’s a man in form but this is a position of strength for Scotland. Dave Cherry has been impressive for Edinburgh and George Turner was Scotland’s starting hooker in three of the five Six Nations matches last year. Ewan Ashman offers a fourth option. It’s likely to come down to a choice between Brown and Turner and I think Brown will get the nod, packing down between Pierre Schoeman and Zander Fagerson. Expect Grant Gilchrist to form a second-row partnership with either Richie or Jonny Gray.
Hamish Watson came through his Edinburgh comeback with flying colours after a long lay-off due to the concussion he suffered against New Zealand on November 13. The question for Townsend will be whether one URC match against the Sharks is enough to prepare the flanker for Twickenham. I suspect the answer will be ‘yes’. Watson is a hugely valuable player to Scotland and was Player of the Six Nations in 2021 and a Lions tourist to boot. By all accounts he has been training hard for the last couple of weeks and played the full match for Edinburgh on Saturday, so expect him to join captain Jamie Ritchie in the back row against England. No 8 will then be a toss-up between Glasgow team-mates Matt Fagerson and Jack Dempsey. Fagerson was a stand-out performer in the wins over England in 2021 and 2022 and for that reason is likely to be preferred to Dempsey whose dynamism off the bench could prove useful.
Possible Scotland team to play England: 15. Stuart Hogg; 14. Sean Maitland, 13. Chris Harris, 12. Sione Tuipulotu, 11. Duhan van der Merwe; 10. Finn Russell, 9. Ali Price; 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. Fraser Brown, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Richie Gray, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Jamie Ritchie (c), 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Matt Fagerson.