Townsend’s Midfield Minefield
Move left and select the inexperienced flavour of the month, there’s risk of implosion when the pressure is on. Stay to the right and persevere with the old faces that have struggled of late, and you risk being marooned in the middle of the field when a point of difference is what is required. As far as his midfield options go, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend finds himself in a veritable minefield of options, all of which vary in style and experience.
As so finely penned by Charlie Morgan in his preview of Scotland’s World Cup hopes, Townsend’s side are “impossible to predict, intoxicating to watch.” The potential boasted by the men donning the thistle is supreme. Together, Hamish Watson, Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg have the ability to inspire a performance to shake the All Blacks, denied a victory over the reigning world champions by only the illegal slap down of captain Kieran Read that went unidentified by referee Matthew Carley in 2017.
Much to the heartbreak of their fans, Scotland could just as easily put in the type of shift that saw them hammered 32-3 away to France a fortnight ago. The most Scottish performance of modern times was probably the 38 all draw with England during the final round of this year’s Six Nations, conceding an eye-watering 31 unanswered points in the first half hour, and going on to score their own 38 before George Ford’s equalizing score while the clock was in the red.
In an area of such import and influence in both attack and defence, Townsend will have to get his lines right when he has his final say on which centres make his 31-man World Cup squad and which talented two are left at home. Traditionally, four centres are included in World Cup squads, with at least one able to cover another major position adequately. With six men left, we take a look at what each man offers and how likely he is to make the final cut.
Chris Harris: 8 caps
The once Newcastle Falcon and soon-to-be Gloucester centre is a man that almost exclusively makes the correct decisions under pressure. Less of an athletic threat and more of a link man with supreme defensive nous, the 8-cap midfielder entered the World Cup warm-ups as one of the outside bets. However, an impressive shift in victory over the French last Saturday, in which he operated as a stabilising factor in the thirteen jersey, may have Townsend seriously considering him as a man to help settle Scotland’s capricious nature.
Pete Horne: 41 caps
The most experienced of Scotland’s options, Horne has been the most regular starter under Townsend, but suffers from inconsistency. Able to cover fly-half, Horne may have once been penned into Scotland’s World Cup squad with a Sharpie, but the form of Six Nations star and fellow Glasgow Warrior Sam Johnson might have seen Townsend checking his Tipp-ex stores.
As it stands, Horne’s utility and experience leaves him as a safe bet for a squad spot. Time spent in and around the current squad is a factor we as outsiders often undervalue and Townsend cannot afford to rock the boat too much, having to hit the ground running with an all-important World Cup opener against Ireland on the 22nd of September.
Rory Hutchinson: 2 caps
The new boy on the block, Hutchinson gave Scottish rugby a shot in the arm when he decided to follow the path to the blue of Scotland rather than the white of England; despite coming through the Northampton Saints Academy and losing England Qualified Player status for his Gallagher Premiership club.
The Cambridge native was one of the stars of the 2018/19 Premiership season, tearing defences apart with his slight of hand, silky running lines and generally box-office skills. If you were to explain Hutchinson’s pedigree to those that are yet to have witnessed his Saints career to date, you wouldn’t be far off the mark by drawing comparison to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Along with fellow England-born Harris, Hutchinson’s inexperience placed him on more of the peripheries of Scotland’s options. However, his ability to cover fly-half and the velvety glimpses Townsend will have been treated to during training and his bench appearance in victory over the French may yet see Hutchinson in the squad.
Hutchinson’s biggest selling points are his ability to offer Scotland a game-breaking threat and an ability to cover fly-half in a pinch – the latter of which may cause Horne some late nights.
Huw Jones: 22 caps
A few short years ago, Jones was the flavour of the month not only in Scotland, but world rugby. The 25-year-old was terrorising international defences in 2016 and 2017 and saw many include him in their hypothetical World XVs at the time. Unfortunately, the former Stormers star has since seen his form drop off a cliff, losing his starting spot for both club and country.
Jones’s once assured luxury seat for the long-haul journey to Asia grows more distant by the day. And yet, there is still the chance that Townsend will make a public show of faith in his past Murrayfield capering by including him ahead of the in-form Harris or Hutchinson. A warm up game in Tbilisi this Saturday may decide his inclusion or exclusion.
Sam Johnson: 4 caps
The man that caught the eyes of the rugby public during the latest Six Nations is the only centre yet to make an appearance during the current warm-up period, owing to an ankle injury. The Australian-born Glasgow star is the current incumbent to the twelve jersey and is perhaps the only centre guaranteed a spot in the 31 if fit. He may be relatively small in stature for the modern inside centre at 6ft1”, but Johnson’s handy fend, Southern Hemisphere-esque nose for a running line and capable defensive showings make him well-suited to help guide Scotland from the quagmires of capitulation to the champagne rugby we know Scotland are capable of.
Duncan Taylor: 22 caps
There are fewer active current internationals that can complain of a more hapless injury record than Saracens man Duncan Taylor. Had he not been sidelined for what seems like the majority of his Scotland career - that dates back to 2013 – he surely would have passed the 50-cap mark by now. Despite playing just ten times for Scotland since the 2015 World Cup after missing the tournament altogether through yet another injury, Taylor is clearly one of both the coaches’ and fans’ favourites. Perhaps the ultimate utility back in the Scotland squad, Taylor has the pace to fit into the back three, the footwork to run at outside centre and the heft and handling skills to play at inside centre. Along with Johnson, it feels like all Taylor has to do to head to Japan is remain fit. A far tougher task than it should be for the former Bedford Blues man. Although, his injury record may well be enough to tempt Townsend to stick with his tried and tested option of Horne at inside centre.
There we have it, the minefield Townsend must transverse. Exclude Horne in favour of Johnson and Taylor, and he risks the absence of the man that has spent more time in camp than any other centre. Decide not to take one of Hutchinson or Taylor, both scarcely seen under Townsend, and you could be missing out on the type of pedigree that often means the difference between winning a losing. Harris is a stabilising presence, but has at times struggled to reproduce the influence he has show for the Falcons over the last few years, while Jones’s pure potential makes the decision between dropping and out-of-form 25-year-old far less straight forward than it ought to be.
I do not envy the decision Townsend and his fellow coaches will make in regards to his midfield before the final squad announcement next Tuesday. But, we can at least say that he does not suffer from the lack of depth that has plagued so many of his predecessors.