Who will Gregor Townsend pick for Scotland's autumn tests?
There was some good news for Scotland coach Gregor Townsend at the weekend, amid the stories of suspensions and sights of key players limping off fields '“ New Zealand showed off a rare chink in the All Black armour as they slipped to a defeat.
The only problem was that it came against another of next month’s opponents in the autumn series as the Wallabies registered a long-awaited win over their trans-Tasman rivals in Brisbane. Okay, it was a dead rubber in the Bledisloe Cup, but no win over New Zealand can be sniffed at.
Townsend no doubt watched that match with his usual forensic eye but, in truth, the serious specific preparation for the Tests against Samoa, the All Blacks and Australia can wait as the coach tries to work out just what kind of squad he has available.
On top of the well-publicised suspensions of Edinburgh back-rowers John Hardie and Magnus Bradbury in the past fortnight, Glasgow captain Ryan Wilson, centre Peter Horne and back-rower Adam Ashe were all injured in the 34-18 loss to Leinster at Scotstoun.
Centre Duncan Taylor also limped off in Saracens’ win over Ospreys to add to the worries of Townsend, who already knows he will be without established national skipper Greig Laidlaw, hooker Fraser Brown and probably midfield rock Alex Dunbar for his first taste of BT Murrayfield as head coach of his country.
“The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux,” as former prime minister Tony Blair once said in a famous foreign policy speech.
That first Samoa game is not until two weeks on Saturday and most, if not all, of the weekend knocks could prove to be non-series threatening. However, Townsend has moved his squad announcement from yesterday to this morning to give more time to absorb the situation and consider his options.
He is expected to name a pool of just over 30 but these things are always flexible, with the ability to draft players in. This time last year Vern Cotter named a core squad of 31 but had a number of players training alongside the group, including Bradbury, who went on to start the second Test against Argentina.
Bradbury is unlikely to be included this morning and nor will his club-mate, Hardie. Other Edinburgh forwards such as lock Ben Toolis and openside Hamish Watson, who seized his chance in last year’s series and has gone on to outshine Hardie at club level, should be bursting with anticipation at a chance to nail down jerseys.
Richie Gray is on his way back from back surgery, while brother Jonny Gray, along with star full-back Stuart Hogg, have given Townsend reason to smile with swift recoveries. Loosehead Allan Dell has enjoyed a transformative year, going from (the currently long-term injured) Al Dickinson’s understudy to an Edinburgh regular, ten Scotland caps and even a cameo appearance for the Lions.
The 25-year-old’s return from a back issue shores up slightly a front row weakened by Dickinson and Brown’s absence and WP Nel’s slow progress back to his best before the serious neck issues that emerged 12 months ago.
In the backs the main pressure point looks to be in the centres, though a bright spot is that Huw Jones is in fine form. He plays his final match for Western Province in this weekend’s Currie Cup final before heading to Scotland and the next chapter in his Glasgow Warriors career.
There could be surprise inclusions this morning. Townsend developed a reputation at Glasgow for being able to bring in young and fringe players and inspire them to lift themselves to the environment.
Lorry loads of cotton wool will be en route to Scotstoun and Murrayfield and a lot can happen between now and 2.30pm on November 11. The kaleidoscope is sure to be shaken again.