Gregor Townsend believes Scotland’s squad is stronger than ever
Gregor Townsend insists Scotland have never been stronger as they prepare to jet out for the World Cup at almost full strength.
Only the injured Sam Skinner and Toulouse lock Richie Gray – who turned down the chance to win a seat on the plane to Japan – were not available to the Dark Blues coach as he named his 31-man squad.
Townsend’s team have one final hurdle to overcome on Friday night as they complete their warm-up schedule against Georgia at Murrayfield.
But he will reduce the risk of picking up any last-minute bumps and bruises by handing a number of unlucky candidates who were overlooked for the tournament a consolation run-out against the Lelos.
And he believes with the majority of his top performers fit, Scotland’s jet out in rude health.
He said: “Success would be playing to our best. Playing to our potential has been our aim from the start.
“We know and we’ve seen it as when we play to our best we are a match for any team in the world.
“How we defended and attacked against the top teams in the world we have won those games.
“We have a stronger squad now than we’ve ever had. We’ve never been in a better position over the last few years to play at our best.”
Townsend has opted to select Stuart McInally ahead of former captains Grieg Laidlaw and John Barclay to lead the team out for their opener with Ireland in Yokohama on September 22.
But the major news surrounds his decision to leave out both Glasgow centre Huw Jones and his midfield rival from Northampton Rory Hutchinson.
Jones burst onto the Test scene with nine tries in his first 14 appearances for the Dark Blues but in the 18 months since he scored a sensational double in the 2018 Calcutta Cup win over England, his form for club and country has dropped off considerably.
And Townsend admitted a lack of experience had counted against Hutchinson despite the 23-year-old making a late bid for selection with a brace on his first Scotland start during Saturday’s win in Tbilisi.
With fit-again Saracens centre Duncan Taylor and Sam Johnson of Warriors the leading duo to start in the midfield, Townsend has opted to take Peter Horne – who can also fill in at 10 – and Chris Harris as cover.
Townsend said: “Rory came very close, both him and Huw were debated for a long while on the flight back from Georgia.
“Rory did very well on Saturday night, he was comfortable on the ball but just missed out as he’s not had enough international experience.
“Both Rory and Huw are similar in terms of not having enough games at international level to force their way into the squad.
“Huw hasn’t had enough games playing well, or playing at all over the last few months.
“He’s looked in unbelievable shape in training but we haven’t seen enough in the game-and-a-half he’s had with us to get himself into that final squad.
“We know he’s on his way back to his best form but it just wasn’t enough.”
Prop Jamie Bhatti has paid the price for his failure to impress during the five-try mauling inflicted upon his side by France in Nice, while forwards Josh Strauss, Matt Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury also miss out, with Scarlets number eight Blade Thomson selected on the basis he can also slot into the second row if necessary.
Lock Bradbury has not featured at all during the Scots’ three warm-up clashes so far due to a rib injury and his lack of action has cost him his place, even though fellow second-rower Jonny Gray and hooker Fraser Brown have both made the cut despite having also sat out the double-header with France and last weekend’s Tbilisi triumph through injury.
Hooker Grant Stewart and Sale wing Byron McGuigan are the others left disappointed.
Townsend added: “We really like our squad, it’s a combination of experience and youth. There are a lot of leaders there who have captained Scotland in successful games.
“We have players who lead in certain areas of our game. WP Nel is an experienced player, Jonny Gray, Finn Russell – they are all experienced players.
“We look at the vice captains, John Barclay and Greig Laidlaw and that’s really encouraging for us as coaches to know that we have leaders.”