WITH such significant figures as Finn Russell and Duhan van der Merwe unavailable at present, Gregor Townsend’s first Scotland squad of the season inevitably has a makeshift look to it.
But the 36-man list announced yesterday does at least give a fair indication of the coach’s thinking in certain areas, and, while not necessarily a definitive guide to how the national team will line up against Tonga in 16 days’ time, surely includes the vast majority if not all of the matchday 23 for that Test.
Russell, Van der Merwe and the rest of the England- or France-based contingent such as Stuart Hogg, Adam Hastings and Rory Sutherland will come back into the fold for the following three matches in the Autumn Series.
But the Tonga game takes place outwith World Rugby’s recognised international window, meaning their clubs are under no obligation to release them.
The omission of full-back Hogg means that, presumably just for that one match, there will be a new captain – or possibly an old one, given the inclusion of Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist.
It could also mean that we will see a new player in the No 15 jersey: Blair Kinghorn is the most experienced squad member in that position, but he was playing at stand-off for Edinburgh before being injured, so it remains to be seen where Townsend believes he will be best employed.
With Damien Hoyland, Cole Forbes, Jack Blain and Rufus McLean included, the coach has plenty of options for the last line of defence if he does regard Kinghorn as a 10.
And there is no reason why Kinghorn, even if he starts at full-back, should not be used as utility cover for Ross Thompson and Charlie Savala, the two specialist stand-offs in the squad.
Glasgow playmaker Thompson has shown himself to be an old head on young shoulders and certainly has the composure needed to make the step up to senior international level. Even so, it is something of a surprise that Edinburgh’s Jaco van der Walt is not in the squad given his general dependability and current good form.
Although he is widely seen as a conservative, kicking 10, Van der Walt showed in a man-of-the-match performance last weekend that he is capable of playing a far more versatile game than he did during his four seasons under Richard Cockerill.
The absence of Van der Walt’s half-back partner Ben Vellacott is even more of a surprise, such has been the scrum-half’s outstanding form for Edinburgh since moving from Wasps in the close season. Indeed, along with Glasgow openside Rory Darge, Vellacott has been arguably our most impressive player in any position over the opening few weeks of the new campaign.
Having said that, it would be tough to argue that the three scrum-halves who have been included do not merit their places. Ali Price has yet to play since touring South Africa with the British & Irish Lions but clearly has a lot of credit in the bank, as does his Glasgow team-mate George Horne, who at his best has very similar attributes to Vellacott.
Jamie Dobie makes it a clean sweep for the Warriors at scrum-half, and although he is as yet uncapped, he has demonstrated over the past season and more that he clearly has the potential to thrive in the Test arena.
Then there is the loyalty factor to be taken into account. Dobie was selected in the summer for the three matches that had to be cancelled, and although Mike Blair was in charge of the squad for those games, the consultation between Townsend and the man who is now Edinburgh coach was clearly close.
Having selected Dobie and 18 others for the squad just a few months ago, Townsend has chosen them again, possibly reasoning that if they deserved a chance then, they still deserve it now.
Of course, there is neither a guarantee that all of the 19 will get their chance against Tonga nor a certainty that they will remain involved for the three matches which follow on the first three weekends of next month. Similarly, those who have been left out at the moment – Richie Gray and Duncan Weir being salient omissions along with Vellacott – could well be invited back into the fold as early as next week, when Townsend announces his actual squad for the Autumn Series.
It is a punishing schedule: after playing against the Tongans on Saturday 30, Scotland will meet Australia on Sunday 7 November, South Africa on Saturday 13 and Japan on Saturday 20, with all four games being held at BT Murrayfield. It is just conceivable that a handful of players will start every game. But it is more likely that significant rotation will be required, and that the team that lines up against Japan will look radically different to the one that takes the field against Tonga.