Six Nations 2019: Good start vital for Scotland as Gregor Townsend awaits return of cavalry
|Six Nations: Scotland v Italy|
|Venue: Murrayfield Date: Saturday, 2 February Kick-off: 14:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC Television & online; listen on Radio Scotland; follow live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Gregor Townsend named two squads at Murrayfield on Wednesday - a group of 39 that will make up his training camp for the beginning of the Six Nations, and another gang of 19 who are currently on the injury list.
Frankly, given the stellar names involved, the second collection was almost as interesting as the first. Townsend didn't bemoan the absentees - he never has throughout his coaching career - but it's hard not to look at that list and wonder about Scotland's prospects in what promises to be a murderously competitive Six Nations if a good number of them don't make it back in time to play a serious part in it.
John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury and Blade Thomson - that's one back row that's not available right now. Matt Fagerson, Dave Denton and Luke Hamilton - that's another. Scotland's second and third choice hookers - Fraser Brown and George Turner - both missing at the moment. Three experienced centres - Mark Bennett, Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor - not available. Throw in Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray and a few others and you have close to a Test team on the sidelines - and not a bad one at that.
The good news is that some of the stricken will be drip-fed back into the championship as the weeks go by. Surviving the first two weeks is key, though. Scotland begin with home matches against Italy and Ireland. If they're to make themselves contenders for the title then both of those Murrayfield Tests must be won.
- Uncapped hookers & centre Dean in Scotland squad
- Townsend undaunted by Scotland injuries
- Pick your Scotland XV to face Italy
One of the glaring challenges facing Townsend is in the middle of the front row. Stuart McInally is a world-class hooker and one of the most durable rugby players you could possibly find - and he'll need to be. In the absence of Brown and Turner, there are three uncapped men behind McInally. In a tournament where gnarled old pros roam free like predators, Scotland may have to call on a few too many relative innocents off the bench in the early weeks as they try to establish momentum.
Townsend has been in this kind of territory before and has found a way of delivering big performances, but Dave Cherry of Edinburgh and Jake Kerr of Leicester Tigers have never been in a Scotland training camp before, never mind being involved in a match-day 23. They're also not first choice for their clubs. Grant Stewart is the other understudy. Stewart is in the infancy of his professional rugby career.
There are issues at loose-head as well. Allan Dell, Alex Allan and Jamie Bhatti are the three chosen. Dell has recently lost his place at Edinburgh - Pierre Schoeman has started the past two European games - and Allan and Bhatti are behind Oli Kebble at Glasgow. Dell is a wily operator who has been over the Six Nations terrain before, but it's the back-up that's concerning. Allan and Bhatti are both fine players, but they're not battle hardened when it comes to the brutality that awaits in the Six Nations.
Townsend will never say it, but he'll be longing for the cavalry to reappear on the horizon as soon as possible. At close to full strength, especially with three home games, Scotland have a right to consider themselves as contenders, but shorn of so much canniness and so much class it's going to be savagely difficult for them to get off to the start they need.
Gray's place under threat?
There are other areas of interest here, not least the second row. For much of his international career Jonny Gray was deemed a certain starter. There was no debate required. He was in by right. No challenger and no argument. The rise and rise of Edinburgh might change that somewhat.
As a combination, Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist have been exceptional. They've won big game after big game. They've brought the kind of physicality and intensity that has put them one victory away from topping their Champions Cup group, thereby guaranteeing them a home quarter-final, where you'd fancy them against most sides, no matter the number of galacticos the opposition may have.
Sam Skinner is also in this conversation. Skinner can play six, but Townsend sees him as more of a lock. The Scotland head coach is a massive fan of Gray - he's not alone in that - but he might now have a decision to make in the engine room of his pack, a decision that has been pretty much a gimme for Gray up until this point.
Even allowing for the continuing absence of Taylor in the backline - one wish for 2019 is that the Saracen somehow shrugs off the injury curse that has bedevilled him for too long - Townsend has strong choices. He has experience, wit and pace in the frontline and more of it on the bench.
It's in key positions up front where things are a little worrying. Townsend preferred to talk up the opportunities available to the newcomers than dwell on the absent troops. He has no other option. The Six Nations is always a ride on the wildest rollercoaster, but with Ireland and Wales so outrageously strong and England and France, possibly, on the way back, this one promises to take the dizziness to a new level.
My Scotland XV
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