AS iconic sporting showpieces go, the 1995 Rugby World Cup is right up there. Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar united a divided nation around the victorious Springboks, while Jonah Lomu ushered in a new era of the sport by trucking poor Tony Underwood, whose misfortune it was to stand between him and the try line in the semi-final.

Gregor Townsend, on the other hand, had every reason to look back on the occasion far less favourably. This was meant to be his first global showpiece as a Scotland player, having made his breakthrough two years earlier. But he never got there, courtesy of a knee injury picked up just weeks before in his last-ever match for hometown team Gala, courtesy of a tackle from Greig Oliver at the Mansfield home of rivals Hawick.

“It was my last ever game for Gala … against those bad Hawick boys,” the Scotland head coach recalls with a grimace. “And I remember getting booed off the park by the Hawick fans. I hadn’t really had a serious injury up until that point, and I thought it was a two or three-weeker, so I went on holiday with my girlfriend at the time – who is now my wife – to Ireland.


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“There were no mobile phones in those days, so when we came back my mum said I’d had all these messages from the Scotland team manager telling me to get a scan on my knee,” he added. “I thought: Ok, I’ll get a scan but it’s fine – it has improved already over these two or three days. I got the scan expecting to be out two or three weeks, and they said: ‘No, you’ve ruptured your ligament, you’re out for three months. So that was it.”

Townsend made it to the 1999 and 2003 versions, playing every game, but not without a drama or two along the way. Indeed, he required knee operations about two months out from both tournaments. The backstory is particularly interesting on the day that Townsend named his starting team for the first of four pre-World Cup warm-up matches in Nice on Saturday night, three of which come before he finalises his 31-man squad for the World Cup in Japan.

Rather than the last train to Georgia, Townsend’s final determinations will be made on the flight home from Tbilisi. While Scotland were fortunate to get away with just one serious injury at the 2015 showpiece, Grant Gilchrist going down against the USA, he knows to his cost that losing “zero to one” players from his squad to knocks in the next two weeks will be a stroke of good fortune.

“Going into this final period before we cut down the squad everyone is going to pick up at least one injury,” he admits. “If you get very lucky you pick up zero to one, if you get really unlucky you pick up closer to 10.”

If yesterday’s selection for the first of these back-to-back warm-up matches against France and then Georgia are anything to go by, the head coach is keeping multiple balls in the air.


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While the team could be almost entirely different against the same opponents at BT Murrayfield in a week’s time, he leans heavily on the Edinburgh connection with seven of the eight starting forwards playing their club rugby in the capital, with a couple of Hawick lads in the form of Stuart Hogg and Darcy Graham given a rare chance to link up in the back three alongside Byron McGuigan. Duncan Taylor is back after two years toiling with injury in the centre, while the uncapped Scott Cummings and Rory Hutchinson are likely to make their debuts from the bench.

Hutchinson, of Northampton Saints, in particular offers the versatility to cover at 10, 12 and 13, and such flexibility will be treasured by Townsend if he can prove that he belongs at this level.

“Getting players into the camp and squad that bring something different is excellent,” said Townsend. “The next step is do they grab their opportunity at international level. Some do, some find it harder, it takes some of them 10 caps before they get used to Test week, playing in front of 80,000 people, just that higher level of rugby.

“Hutchinson’s versatility is very valuable,” the 46-year-old added. “He has obviously not played Test match rugby yet, he obviously has to show us that he can play Test match rugby over this period. But he is covering 10, 12 and 13 this weekend. He played a lot of the first part of his senior rugby as a stand-off, played two seasons for Scotland as No 10, finished games for Northampton at No 10. But the majority of his games have been at 13 and if you were to ask him what his preferred position would be, it is 12.

“It genuinely will come down to that last weekend when we are flying back from Georgia to decide. Do we need a player here who has shown he is in excellent form but covers one position, to one who covers two which gives us more flexibility elsewhere in the squad. We don’t want to second guess that because we might pick up one or two injuries which has a domino effect on the squad. But it is of benefit to have a player who can cover more than one position, that’s right.”


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Even the final 31, mind you, isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Players left out of the squad could yet come in to play a big part due to injuries sustained during the finals. Although, wiith World Rugby tightening up rules to ensure other squad members are not allowed in-country, making such substitutions on medical grounds is far from a straightforward process.

“Maybe over the last two or three World Cups there have been a few players from one or two countries taking holiday in that area,” says Townsend with a smile. “But I believe that is much stricter now. So, I don’t think you think will see many Scots holidaying in Tokyo.

“The biggest challenge is between Russia and Japan,” he added. “If we pick up an injury in the Russia game, to fly people out would be a huge challenge to go into the starting XV. Even more of a challenge is if we pick two or three injuries the day before a game. Japan isn’t the easiest place in the world to get out to.”