With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. Last week saw Gregor Townsend name a 42-man training squad ahead of the tournament, with the intention stated to bring in 2 more players later in the summer.
Though there are still a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced, I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that will be representing Scotland in Japan, something I have also done recently with the Wales squad. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Townsend will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases towards any specific players.
So without further ado, having tried to get inside Gregor Townsend’s head, I think that Scotland’s World Cup squad will be…
Stuart McInally looks to be nailed on as the starter for Scotland, so the question is who will back him up? Fraser Brown brings the experience and can also pack down at flanker in an emergency, which is always beneficial in a squad with limited numbers. That likely leaves Grant Stewart and George Turner fighting for the final place, and I think that Turner’s time in the Scotland setup over recent seasons will see him take the spot.
In my opinion, WP Nel, Zander Fagerson and Allan Dell are guaranteed spots if they are all fit. Given Nel’s injury history for Scotland and Fagerson having also missed time recently with injuries, I expect a third tighthead to make the list and that will be Simon Berghan. Gordon Reid brings experience at loosehead, but a season playing in the Championship for London Irish may count against him as he has not been up against the same quality of player, so I think Jamie Bhatti will travel as Dell’s backup.
Sam Skinner was unlucky to get injured at the start of the Six Nations, but I think that his quality and ability to cover second row and back row will guarantee him a spot. Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray will also travel as specialist locks. I think that Skinner’s versatility will see Scotland take another specialist lock and while Ben Toolis has a very good chance of getting the spot, I think that Richie Gray will use Toulouse’s success as a springboard to take one of the 2 remaining spots in the training squad and convert that to a spot on the plane.
The experienced trio of John Barclay, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson will surely make the list providing they are all fit. Jamie Ritchie had a great Six Nations, which I feel will earn him a seat on the plane. Despite Skinner and Brown both being able to cover the back row, I still feel that they will take another specialist in the back row. Blade Thomson is a highly talented player and gives something different to his rivals, but I think his concussion issues that ruled him out of the Six Nations and much of 2019’s action will count against him. Matt Fagerson is an impressive player but one for the future, while I think Gary Graham also needs a number of rivals to get injured in order to get the final spot in such a deep position. Josh Strauss gives experience, but questions over when Premiership clubs will release their players could hamper him here and I think Magnus Bradbury will get the final spot due to his ability to play 6 or 8 and his highly physical approach.
Greig Laidlaw and Ali Price have become Gregor Townsend’s go-to pairing at 9 and the question is likely not “will they make the squad?” but “who starts and who comes off the bench?”. With matches coming thick and fast, I think that Townsend will take a 3rd scrum half and while Henry Pyrgos has the greater experience, I think George Horne will get the spot as he can cause a nightmare for a tiring defence and will gain great experience with a view to the next tournament in 2023.
With Laidlaw able to cover the position if needed, I think that Duncan Weir’s exclusion from the current 42-man training squad hints towards Townsend only selecting 2 specialist fly halves. If that is the case, they surely select themselves in the form of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, who have been the clear choices at the position in recent international windows.
With just 2 specialist 10s being selected, I think that opens up a space for Peter Horne to join brother George on the plane, as he can work as a playmaker at in the centre or at fly half. Huw Jones has been one of the best 13s in internationals rugby and will surely make the squad, along with Sam Johnson, who had a great Six Nations. Due to Horne also covering fly half, I think Townsend will take the opportunity to take one more specialist centre. Duncan Taylor has the versatility to cover most of the back line but has not played all season, Rory Hutchinson has had a great breakout year with Northampton but is probably lacking the experience to make this squad and will be one to come in early int he next 4-year cycle. Both remaining options in the training squad are defensively adept individuals, but I think Chris Harris will miss out on this occasion in favour of Nick Grigg, who has the added benefit of playing with many of these players regularly for Glasgow.
Stuart Hogg is an obvious pick here as one of the best fullbacks in the world, which leaves 4 more spaces. Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour have been so reliable for Scotland over the years, so I think that their experience will see them make the list, while I also think Darcy Graham has impressed enough to earn a spot despite his limited experience at this level. While all 3 of these players are able to cover both wing and fullback, I think that Hogg’s injury issues in recent years will lead to Blair Kinghorn taking the final spot as a second specialist fullback, who would also be equally adept on the wing if Scotland are facing a team who they expect to kick a lot.
So those are my picks for Scotland’s 31-man World Cup Squad, who do you think makes the list?