Following the announcement of Gregor Townsend’s 41-man training squad for the Rugby World Cup, Planet Rugby picks out the winners and losers.
Post-World Cup retirees
There wasn’t really any doubt that Stuart Hogg would be included, but the comment that he hasn’t been enjoying his rugby may have concerned Townsend. Hogg has not been playing particularly well for either club or country but, in what will be his last dance, there is certainly extra motivation there.
Similar could be said of Stuart McInally, who joins Ewan Ashman, Dave Cherry and George Turner as the hookers in the wider squad. A top-class performer at his best, McInally has struggled for fitness and form over the past year and will retire following the World Cup to become a pilot, but he gets one last chance at the top level.
One of just two uncapped players in the squad, the very talented Glasgow Warriors centre has been banging on the door for a while. Standing at 6ft 4in and weighing over 16st, McDowall has the obvious physical capabilities to play international rugby, but he is also very skilful.
He’s going to find it tough to get into the starting XV, with the ‘Huwipulotu’ partnership thriving in the Six Nations, but he should get his shot in the warm-up games to stake his claim, and we are excited to see how he fares.
The other uncapped individual given his opportunity in the squad, having impressed for Leicester Tigers this season, is Henderson. The 23-year-old joined the Tigers from Glasgow in 2020 and has developed nicely over the first two years before becoming a regular in 2022/23.
Henderson is a smart player and a very good lineout option, but he is also physical and puts himself about in what is a pretty gnarly pack. With Jonny Gray potentially out of the global tournament, this youngster has a chance to force his way into Scotland’s 23.
Missed the Six Nations after suffering a neck injury and has not played since December 2022 but is evidently highly rated by Townsend and makes his return to the squad for the World Cup. Walker sits behind Zander Fagerson for both club and country, but the experienced tighthead is a good player to learn from, and the coaches rate his set-piece work better than Simon Berghan – another Warriors tighthead.
Berghan played two matches in the Six Nations – against England and Ireland – but misses out on the wider training squad for the tournament in France. It, therefore, provides Walker with a big opportunity to challenge Fagerson and reserve prop, Edinburgh’s WP Nel, for a place in the 23. The Scarlets’ Javan Sebastian is also there, but the Glasgow youngster is slightly higher up the pecking order at the moment.
Very much a selection based on reputation, with the Gloucester man struggling with injury this season. Hastings featured against Fiji in the Autumn Nations Series but suffered a big hit which ruled him out for over a month.
He then returned in December only to suffer a shoulder injury which required surgery on his first game back. Hastings made his comeback in April and has played two games since – against Sale Sharks and Bristol Bears in the Premiership – but has looked understandably rusty. At his best, the 27-year-old is Scotland’s second-choice fly-half behind Finn Russell, but he has plenty to prove over the next few months.
— Autumn Nations Series (@autumnnations) November 5, 2022
Bradbury’s move to the Premiership has not helped his international ambitions, as he is yet to make the squad since signing for Bristol Bears. His last appearance for Scotland came in the first Test against Argentina last July, and has seemingly fallen further down the pecking order since.
While Bristol had a forgettable season, Bradbury was a standout featuring in 18 of their 21 Premiership matches and picked the club’s Players’ Player of the Season award.
The experienced second-rower would have been the fifth player in the squad on their way to a third Rugby World Cup had it not been for injury.
Gray dislocated his kneecap in Exeter Chiefs’ 47-28 Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle and is seemingly ruled out of the tournament in France. It’s a crushing blow for the player and even more so for Scotland, as he has proven his quality time and time again at the highest level.
Centres miss out
The quality in Scotland’s midfield means there would always be a few classy players that miss out on selection, even in such a big squad. This time around, Edinburgh’s Mark Bennett, Glasgow’s Sam Johnson and Northampton’s Rory Hutchinson miss the final cut. All three players can feel aggrieved that they did not make the squad, but it’s hard to argue that those selected don’t deserve to be there.
McDowall has been excellent for Glasgow this season and has edged ahead of the reliable Johnson when one of Sione Tuipulotu or Huw Jones are unavailable. The latter pair lit up the Six Nations and have continued that form at the Warriors and were straightforward selections.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson has been sublime for Northampton this season, playing 19 of their 21 fixtures as they reached the Premiership semi-finals. However, he has never really stamped his mark on the international stage when given his opportunity, while Chris Harris and Cameron Redpath have.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) April 15, 2023
Arguably the two most surprising omissions in the Scotland squad come from the front-row, with Glasgow pair Fraser Brown and Johnny Matthews missing out completely. The non-selection of Brown is particularly surprising as he had featured in all five Six Nations matches earlier this year.
His clubmate Matthews has been in outstanding form, scoring seven times in the Challenge Cup and six times in the URC. The dynamic hooker scored five of those tries in the 73-33 thrashing of the Dragons, but he also adds plenty of grunt and athleticism to any team.
Again hooker is not a position that Scotland are short in, but the form of Matthews and the experience and leadership of Brown would have led many to believe that one, if not both, would make the squad.
The Ulster scrum-half is eligible for Scotland, having earned the last of his 11 caps for Ireland during the 2020 Six Nations and has openly discussed the possibility of switching Test allegiance.
After signing a new deal with Ulster recently, Cooney hinted in an interview with the BBC that his eligibility for Scotland had come up in the negotiations.
“People would know about other nationalities and stuff which can be a complication, but in terms of what I love to do and who I love to play for, it was easy in that regard that I want to play here,” he said.
Whether that means he agreed to commit to Ireland and Ulster by signing the deal is unclear, but the 32-year-old was undoubtedly back to playing some of his best rugby this season.
He was linked with a call-up during the Six Nations, but the performances of Ali Price, Ben White and George Horne quickly silenced those rumours. Youngster Jamie Dobie is the fourth scrum-half in the squad, providing a nice balance of youth and experience, but one has to wonder what kind of impact Cooney could have had in the side.