Over the past 15 months Gregor Townsend has taken the opportunity to have a look at pretty much every realistic candidate for the Scottish RWC squad in 2019. Barring a significant injury crisis the the vast majority of the 31 names on the plane to Japan will come from the 72 men that Toony has already selected for his previous squads.
Here’s On Top Of The Moon’s guide to the the players in contention and where they might rank exactly one year out from Scotland’s first fixture in the tournament against Ireland on 22nd September 2019 (click images for larger versions):
- Neil Cochrane and Scott Lawson were also included at hooker over the last year or so. Both men retired from professional rugby at the end of the 2017/18 season.
- Tim Visser was involved in Toony’s early selections but has announced his retirement from Test rugby.
- Three other scrum halves have been picked for squads without making it into the match day 23 – Nathan Fowles, Sean Kennedy and Charlie Shiel.
- And of course Richie Vernon (part of the most recent 6 Nations training squad at centre) stands ready to cover any position from 1-15.
There are still some names who might yet come into contention before the RWC kicks off. OTOTM picks out the forward and back most likely to make that breakthrough.
Blindside flanker / number 8 / lock
It’s a story that has panned out a number of times before. Player features for New Zealand U20 and Maori All Blacks but never quite makes the breakthrough to the full Test side. Comes North and rips it up in European club rugby. Blade Thomson has taken a slight detour in playing in a different country from the one he’s qualified to play for but the man who has put in some storming performances for the Scarlets looks to be a very good fit for Scotland.
At 6’6″ and 17 stone he can feature as a large back row or an athletic lock. It’s early days with his new club in Wales but he’s been their stand out performer in the opening 3 rounds of the PRO14. More clean breaks and defenders beaten for his side than anyone bar Hadleigh Parkes; primary carrier in the pack; 35 tackles made and only 1 missed; 11 lineout takes plus a steal on the opposition throw-in. His middle name is Neville though so it’s not all perfect…
If he sustains this through the next few rounds of league action and the early stages of the Champions Cup the question becomes not so much does he get called in but rather where exactly do Scotland want to play him?
Scotland have a surfeit of talented centres – Gregor Townsend has had just shy of a dozen different names involved in his squads so far – but injuries have meant the head coach has very rarely had the full set to select from. With Mark Bennett and Duncan Taylor the current absentees the Autumn Tests might be seen as an opportunity to deepen the selection pool a little further. Sam Johnson qualified for Scotland on residency over the summer and it’s possible that Toony might want to include a man who was his go to at 12 for the Warriors on some big European nights.
Sam’s a bit of a hybrid between the two types of inside centre Scotland have favoured in recent years – the second five eighth / playmaker Pete Horne type and the more direct runner exemplified by Alex Dunbar. Johnson can distribute but he’s also able to carry the ball up and challenge the line, even in heavy traffic. His lack of a kicking game counts against him slightly but if Scotland are playing Russell, Hogg and Kinghorn in the backline it’s unlikely to be a deal breaker.
The current issue for Johnson is his lack of game time in the early part of the season, with his own injury woes keeping him on the sidelines. If he can get some decent minutes under his belt prior to November there’s a good chance he’ll be in the squad for the Autumn Tests.
It would have been great to have been able to include Alasdair Dickinson in the list of names that could still come into contention. The Edinburgh loosehead would have been a shoo-in if he had returned to full fitness but sadly he’s been forced into retirement.
As a seriously long shot (and only if he sticks it out for another year in Scotland) then big Brian Alainu’uese will qualify to play for the national side just in time for the RWC semi-final and final…
Of course there is always the chance that Toony will pull another rabbit out his hat like he did recently with James Lang. With 13 games to go until the real action starts the focus is likely to start concentrating on a core group of realistic contenders for the final selection. The Autumn Tests’ selection next month should start to give a good idea of the head coach’s thinking.