Jonny Gray. Jonny’s Brother. Grant Gilchrist. Just keep them fit. Sorted. Jonny has been relentless in defence but his carrying in this tournament was not as effective with much of his momentum going sideways. He could do with looking to hit the ball from slightly deeper and also add more of an offloading threat to his game to keep the defence guessing (maybe more Hines-esque than Nakarawa extreme offloads though!) The main issue with Jonny was keeping him out of the clutches of a big spending French team when contract negotiations came around as they would love to have got their hands on an absolute workhorse who they could flog into the ground – job done thanks to his new 3 year deal! By contrast Jonny’s Brother could maybe do with some flogging as, with Castres, he seems to have managed to find another team where he can settle into a comfort zone and not push himself. It was noticeable in the RWC that he improved with every game and it’s hard not to draw some conclusions that he was in an environment with players (particularly his wee bro) and coaches who were driving him to do more. With Gilchrist, as ever, it will be keeping Scotland’s unluckiest man injury-free that will prove the challenge – Edinburgh could really do with their captain back. Behind the main trio Tim Swinson provides yeoman like qualities but is undersized; Ben Toolis will have the challenge of backing up a breakout season when he returns from injury; and there are no less than three very talented locks who were with the under 20s in the summer. Scott Cummings is already tearing it up for Glasgow and will be hitting the weights hard once all the RWC players return. His Hawks colleague Andrew Davidson is not far behind. And the best of the bunch may be Lewis Carmichael who captained the under 20s but may find his pathway at club level blocked somewhat by Edinburgh’s strength in depth in the second row.
There’s potentially a gap to be filled between the two men who might well contest the TH spot at Japan 2019. WP Nel was undoubtedly one of the players of the 2015 RWC for Scotland and has cemented his place in the pack with some great work both in the set piece and in open play. One of the brightest prospects in Scottish rugby right now is Zander Fagerson. At 19 he already has the physical capability to deal with experienced props in the Pro 12 but he needs to learn all the tricks and techniques they are going to subject him to – unfortunately in the front row strength alone isn’t enough. This means he’s probably 2-3 years away from being a serious candidate for regular international rugby. In the meantime Scotland will have to use the likes of Jon Welsh (who will probably learn a hell of a lot playing week in week out in a setpiece oriented league like the Aviva for Newcastle) and Mike Cusack (who will hopefully benefit from having his first proper summer of fitness work in 3 years behind him). At Edinburgh Simon Berghan has shown glimpses that suggest he might be a good prospect but has struggled to get past John Andress in Alan Solomons plans. Overall though this is possibly Scotland’s weakest position in terms of depth and there don’t appear to be any short-term solutions.
The number 2 jersey has seemingly been Ross Ford’s in perpetuity and he showed more consistency at the set piece than his rivals for the jersey during the RWC – but if Stuart McInally can come back from injury as strongly as he finished last season then the former Scotland captain is going to have a serious fight on his hands for both club and country. McInally is a real modern hooker with great breakdown skills and he’s shown at Pro 12 level his work at both scrum and lineout is up to scratch. He doesn’t have the same bulk as Ford but is heavier than his main competitor from Glasgow, Fraser Brown, who also provides a good turnover threat. Neil Cochrane is a fine pro but his chance for international honours has probably come and gone. Kevin Bryce is the closest to Ford in sheer size and is yet another converted back row but he’s struggled to make the breakthrough at Glasgow and may yet be surpassed by Fergus Scott (little brother of Matt) who has shown some fine form in the early part of the season for the Warriors. Again though size may be an issue as he is 2 ½ stone lighter than Ford and at 23 he surely should have bulked up by now. As ever (seemingly) Pat MacArthur is the odd man out – regularly Gregor Townsend’s first pick for Glasgow but ignored by the Scotland selectors, the Roddy Grant of the West coast…
Alasdair Dickinson has transformed himself into one of the most solid and consistent LHs in the Northern Hemisphere and is likely to remain the man in possession of the number 1 jersey until age starts to take its toll – which can be very late on for props. Still it’s probably sensible for Edinburgh and Scotland to be looking at succession planning now and Rory Sutherland is likely to fit the bill for both club and country having stepped into the Gunners front row with only a small drop off from his older colleague. Sutherland will face a challenge from the west coast lead by the Scotstoun Express himself, Gordon Reid, who at this moment is the next best option after Dickinson having improved his scrummaging hugely over the past 2 or 3 seasons. Ryan Grant is still struggling to recover the form that saw him tour with the Lions and Alex Allan may surpass him this season, although the younger of the two former Gunners would still currently be filed under the heading ‘mobile prop’ rather than someone who would be expected to lock out the scrum at the top level. Given the longevity of front rowers the coaches may not need to look to far outwith this group over the next four years. Alan Dell or Grant Shiells may come into consideration but they’re likely to struggle to get serious game time at Edinburgh. Glasgow should be looking to LHs at around 18/19 years old in order to keep their conveyor belt going.
In part 4 – a potential squad for Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan!
Picture courtesy of Adrian Henry. Visit Rugby People for more of Adrian’s fine work.