Gregor Townsend facing ‘difficult’ choices when finalising Rugby World Cup squad

By Sports Desk May 09, 2023

Gregor Townsend is braced for a “difficult” task in whittling his 41-man Rugby World Cup training group down to 33 for the tournament itself, although the Scotland head coach is intent on finalising his pool for France in early August.

There were few major surprises in the 50-year-old’s provisional squad named on Tuesday. Glasgow back Stafford McDowall and Leicester lock Cam Henderson were the only uncapped players included, although both were involved in the Six Nations squad earlier this year.

Jonny Gray was the highest-profile absentee after the Exeter second row suffered a serious knee injury recently, while Fraser Brown, Johnny Matthews and Mark Bennett have been left out.

“It was really difficult,” Townsend said of his selection. “Certain positions required a lot of debate, not just yesterday but the last few weeks.

“I was really keen for a 38-man squad and then I suppose Jonny picking up his injury last week, and a couple of other things, it got to 40 and then it got finalised on 41.

“It just shows the depth we have that we’ve left out some quality players and we’ve still got so much quality in the squad.”

Scotland play four warm-up matches between July 29 and August 26 and Townsend hopes to cull eight players after the game at home to France on August 5.

“It will be difficult,” he said. “It would have been easier if it was 38 because then you only have five players to drop out the squad.

“My goal is to get that down to 33 quickly, maybe after the second warm-up game. That’s what I’m looking at, so we can start working with that 33 in training weeks, get used to them working together, with two games after that.

“If we can get down to 33, that will be really good for our preparations for the World Cup.”

Townsend confirmed he does not expect lock Gray to be fit for the World Cup after the 29-year-old dislocated his kneecap in Exeter’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat by La Rochelle a week past Sunday.

“I think it’s going to be at least four months from now until he’s back in full training and ready to play,” said the head coach. “We kick off in four months’ time against South Africa so who knows?

“It might be that a couple of weeks into the tournament we pick up an injury and he’s back in full training and played pre-season games, but I think that’s unlikely from where we stand today.

“Let’s hope he’s ready to go around September or October, whether that’s for us if we pick up injuries, or his club.”

Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham and Glasgow flanker Rory Darge are both back in the mix after missing the Six Nations through injury, while former Scotland captains Stuart Hogg and Stuart McInally – both of whom recently announced plans to retire from rugby to pursue other interests after the autumn showpiece – remain on course for World Cup swansongs.

Townsend admitted it was always unlikely there would be many newcomers to the World Cup squad given the number of players that have been integrated gradually but deliberately over the past few years.

“The form of players that have been in our recent squads,” said Townsend when asked why there were so few new faces.

“Argentina and Chile (the summer tour) last year was very important for a number of reasons, and one of the reasons was development of players that got opportunities there and have kicked on and are still in our squad.

“The Six Nations was more of a senior squad, we picked the best squad we could put together and didn’t make many changes because we wanted to keep as much cohesion as possible, so it was always going to be difficult for players outside the group to come in when the players were performing so well in games and training.

“There’s lots of depth there so if we do pick up injuries, we know we’ve got quality players just outside the squad.”

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