Scotland's autumn Tests signal start of scramble for World Cup places

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scotland's last visit to Cardiff was a sobering 34-7 defeat in this year's Six Nations opener
Scotland's last visit to Cardiff was a sobering 34-7 defeat in February's Six Nations opener
Wales v Scotland
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 3 November Kick-off: 14:45 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC One, S4C, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, the BBC Sport website and app. Live text on BBC Sport website

Before the howitzer defeat to the USA in June, Gregor Townsend was asked if he'd ever attempted, in a quiet moment, to pick a 31-man squad for the World Cup.

The Scotland head coach smiled and said he had done it a number of times. He said he had multiple versions of the chosen ones. Players come in and players go out on a monthly basis, he pointed out. It was all a bit of fun.

The World Cup seemed like a distant dot on the landscape back then. That's not really the case now. It might still be fun, but it's becoming pretty real.

Scotland play Ireland in Yokohama on 22 September next year. Their final group game is against Japan on 13 October. The countdown to selection is upon us.

Townsend said it started in June, but given that so many stellar names were missing from that tour, it really starts now, with Saturday's Test against Wales in Cardiff followed by Fiji, South Africa, Argentina at Murrayfield, then the Six Nations, then three warm-up games before the squad announcement, then another one after. It's an exhaustive lead-in.

If - and we may as well dream - Scotland make the World Cup final they'll have played 20 Test matches between now and 2 November, the day of the denouement in Japan.

The next 10, 11, 12 months promise to be a marathon run at something akin to a middle distance runner's pace. What is it Scotland are looking for in November? Victories, obviously. But consistency of performance is one of the key things. The rollercoaster that they've been riding has to stop.

Under Townsend, Scotland have been a team of extremes - on one hand, excellent back-to-back wins against the Wallabies, elan in victory against England and a record pummelling of the Pumas in Resistencia, and on the other hand, a loss in Fiji, a hiding in Cardiff, a wretched performance in Rome, a defeat to the USA.

The high and lows can make you nauseous. Watching Scotland is like taking a ride on the Big Dipper.

So, there's a return to Wales to begin the international season. Scotland have suffered so many kicks to the unmentionables in Cardiff that the support will travel with a cricket box and a lot of concern, even if there is a slightly unreal dimension to this contest given the absence of both sides' foreign legion.

After that, it's Fiji. Again, there are nightmarish thoughts of the last time the countries met, in Suva in summer 2017. Scotland had just beaten Australia in Sydney. They were love-bombed all the way to the Pacific Islands and love-bombed again by the locals when they got there.

The players enjoyed every minute of that week apart from the 80 on the Saturday that ruined the whole thing.

That loss should serve as a warning to all of those Scotland men who are on the bubble for World Cup selection. One bad performance and they could be gone, never to return. Josh Strauss started that day and has not played a Test since. Damien Hoyland started on one wing, Tim Visser started on the other. Neither have been seen again. Visser felt he was so far out of the loop that he announced his international retirement in May.

Suva was the last time John Hardie wore a Scotland jersey as well. That defeat wasn't the only reason why Hardie has missed out since - off-field stuff damaged him more than anything else - but he left the door open for others and others walked right through it. Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson and now Blade Thomson have come into the picture in the Scotland back-row. Hardie resides in the same place as Strauss - nowheresville.

Scotland will be without overseas-based players like Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell in Wales
Scotland will be without overseas-based players like Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell in Wales since the match is being played outside World Rugby's international window

Scotland face the revived Springboks in week three of the autumn. A year ago, South Africa were an unholy mess, losing 38-8 in Dublin and 57-0 in New Zealand. Since Rassie Erasmus went in there as the great redeemer there's been a turnaround on the pitch and off. In the business of transformation - the quota system that strives to have players of colour making up 45% of his match-day 23, a percentage that will rise to 50% next year - Erasmus has won huge praise.

Black rugby players have been introduced - the captain, Siya Kolesi, is their magnificent totem - and black rugby fans are turning up to support the Boks in bigger numbers. The South Africans beat New Zealand in Wellington and should have beaten then in Pretoria as well.

"The Springboks are barking like big dogs again," said Mark Alexander, the president of the South African Rugby Union. Springboks barking like dogs? It's quite an image, but you get where he's coming from.

This a new South Africa, a team of power and creativity and hope. They're in the same World Cup group as the All Blacks and the winners of that section play the runners-up in Scotland's section in the knockouts.

A year ago any Scotland fan would have wanted the Springboks in a prospective quarter-final. That might remain the case, but South African rugby has found itself again.

You might say the same of Argentina under Mario Ledesma. In June, at the fag-end of the previous regime, the Pumas were a shambles. Scotland humiliated them and it's doubtful that the Pumas have forgotten about it. Since then, Ledesma's team have beaten Australia and South Africa. Unquestionably, they're on an upward curve.

Scotland's final game of the autumn promises to be edgy, to put it politely.

Everything that happens from here on in will have a deep relevance to World Cup selection. Injury-permitting, there are many spots already nailed down but there are others that are tight calls.

If Townsend goes for three looseheads who are the second and third men behind Allan Dell? If he goes for four locks, who misses out? Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis are the ones in the driving seat now. Who else? Richie Gray, Tim Swinson or can Exeter's Sam Skinner come up on the rails and see them off?

The back-row is a dogfight. Five may go. Again, we're assuming all will be fit - in reality, they won't be. All going well you'd have John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson as certainties and Magnus Bradbury as highly likely. That leaves one - or possibly two - more places for Dave Denton, Matt Fagerson, Jamie Ritchie, Rob Harley and the fascinating character that is Thomson who, like Skinner, will surely make his debut against Fiji.

In the midfield, who joins Huw Jones and Alex Dunbar? Possibly two more required. Will Duncan Taylor be fit? Townsend will be saying prayers for him. You also have Matt Scott, Pete Horne, Nick Grigg, Chris Harris and, if he recovers in time to make a push, Mark Bennett.

On the wing, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn will travel, unless bad luck befalls them, but who's the fourth wing? Byron McGuigan, Dougie Fife or Lee Jones, who gets the nod against Wales.

There are many games to come and other opportunities to seize beyond Cardiff, but the players in the waiting room for Japan would be advised to make their case now. Townsend has shown since Suva last year that he's not averse to denying guys a second chance.

This Test against Wales is far from a sell-out and the atmosphere will have little of the heat of a Six Nations collision. In naming his team for the Principality Stadium, Townsend said that nobody is going to be play their way into his World Cup squad on Saturday but that somebody might play themselves out of it.

The immediate prize they are playing for is the Doddie Weir Cup, but it's the World Cup that's the sub-plot. And that's the way it's going to be in the dizzying months ahead.