THE first meaningful step towards Scotland’s World Cup campaign will happen this afternoon when national head coach

Gregor Townsend announces his initial training

squad for the tournament.

It is not known how many names will make the cut but the 2019 figure of 44 won’t be far off the mark, to be whittled down to 33 before Townsend’s boys face reigning champions South Africa in their tournament opener at Stade de Marseilles on Sunday September 10.

For those who make the cut, a gruelling summer working mainly out of Oriam High Performance Centre in the Heriot Watt University campus on the western fringes of Edinburgh is in store.

The training camp will convene on May 29, which is 104 days before the Springbok clash, and Townsend will be fairly certain of who he wants on the plane out to France by the time Scotland play their four warm-up matches (against Italy, France twice and Georgia) between the July 29 and August 26.

Townsend is well stocked at loose-head prop with first-choice Pierre Schoeman, resurgent Jamie Bhatti and Rory Sutherland, whose season has been disrupted by injury and temporary unemployment following the collapse of Worcester Warriors but remains a class act, all expected to get the nod this afternoon. Fit-again Allan Dell will hope for

an opportunity to reprise his international career three and a half years after his last Scotland cap, although a lack of recent game time counts against him, and Robin Hislop of Saracens could be an outside bet.

At tight-head, Zander Fagerson and WP Nel will go to France if fit. Javan Sebastian, Simon Berghan and Murphy Walker are also in the frame, with the last of those players’ youthful potential and ability to play on both sides of the front-row perhaps giving him a crucial edge.

Hooker selection is going to be fascinating given that Edinburgh duo Stuart McInally and Dave Cherry, Edinburgh-bound Ewan Ashman, and Glasgow triumvirate George Turner, Fraser Brown and Johnny Matthews all have reason to believe that they can add real value to Scotland’s World Cup campaign.

The dislocated knee-cap suffered by Jonny Gray whilst playing for Exeter Chiefs two weekends ago all but killed off his chances of playing at a third World Cup, with Callum Hunter-Hill – who is back playing regularly for Saracens following his on knee issues – a possible beneficiary. Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Cummings and Sam Skinner will train this summer and are all likely to make the final 33. Cameron Henderson of Leicester Tigers and Glen Young of Edinburgh will also be part of the conversation.

In the back-row, captain Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Rory Darge, Matt Fagerson, Jack Dempsey and Luke Crosbie lead the way, while Josh Bayliss and Andy Christie need big summers.

Ben White, George Horne and Ali Price are the three scrum-halves set to make the final cut, with Jamie Dobie snapping hard at their heels. It really doesn’t make sense to parachute in Irish capped John Cooney, who has made himself available for Scotland through World Rugby’s controversial three-year stand-down rule, because he is no better than any of the four names above and there are plenty of reliable goal-kickers elsewhere in the squad.

Finn Russell can expect to have Adam Hastings and Edinburgh-bound Munsterman Ben Healey – who was capped during the Six Nations – as his understudies, although Blair Kinghorn’s ability to play 10, 11, 14 and 15 means that Townsend may opt to travel with only one specialist back-up stand-off.

Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones are now firmly established as Scotland’s first-choice centre partnership, with Cameron Redpath and Chris Harris as back-up, while in-form Glasgow Warrior Stafford McDowall is now surely within touching distance of a first cap. Could forgotten men Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, Sam Johnson and Rory Hutchinson push their way back into the frame?

Stuart Hogg has set this World Cup as his professional rugby swansong, although there has been speculation that he may struggle to command a starting place at full-back ahead of Kinghorn and Ollie Smith. It would, however, be flabbergasting is Townsend did opt to leave a player of that experience and game-changing ability at home.

Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and Kyle Steyn will also be in the back-three mix, but Sean Maitland and Ruaridh McConnochie – who were both part of the Six Nations squad – outside bets.

Townsend has a reputation for throwing selection curve-balls but he has made it clear that he wants to focus in on the tried-and-tested as the main event looms over the horizon – so don’t expect any wildcards this afternoon.