D-Day has finally arrived for Scotland’s World Cup hopefuls. After the best part of 12 weeks of intense training, Gregor Townsend will announce his 33-man squad for this Autumn’s World Cup campaign this morning.

The original training group started out as 41 at the end of May but the sudden retirement of Stuart Hogg, and the early release from the squad of Adam Hastings, Stafford McDowall and Cameron Henderson, means that only 37 now remain.

That leaves four more players to be dealt the devastating news that they won’t get to compete on the game’s biggest stage this Autumn, and Townsend confirmed after Saturday’s ‘friendly’ loss to France that he plans to shed one player in each of the four key positions of hooker, tight-head prop, back-row and scrum-half.

Arguably the tightest call is at hooker where Fraser Brown, who was Scotland’s first choice as recently as the end of the last Autumn Test Series, didn’t even make the final four for this summer’s training camp. He is now injured in any case, but his omission demonstrates just how ferocious the competition is.

George Turner spent the last Six Nations as the man in possession in Scotland’s No 2 jersey and the explosive 30-year-old has enough credit in the bank to still hold that position, although he has fearsome competition breathing over his shoulder.

Former Sale Sharks man Ashman – who will join Edinburgh once his World Cup involvement is over – looks set to be a Scotland stalwart for several years to come but there are questions outstanding about the 23-year-old’s line-out throwing under pressure.

Meanwhile, Cherry is probably the tidiest technical hooker of the four contenders and, having done it the hard way – battling away for three in the English Championship and another season in the famously brutal third tier of French rugby – before finally getting a pro contract in Scotland back in 2018, he plays with the intensity of a man who will always feel he has a point to prove. It wouldn’t be a miscarriage of justice if the 32-year-old emerged as Scotland’s main man in the middle of the front-row during this tournament.

That leaves Stuart McInally – one of the team’s great servants – as the odd man out. The 33-year-old – who endured a torrid time as Scotland’s captain at the 2019 World Cup – would dearly love one last ride around the paddock before hanging up his boots to focus on becoming a commercial airline pilot, and he certainly made a good case for selection with an industrious 25 minutes off the bench against France last weekend. But it feels like momentum is with his three rivals and there is, alas, no room for sentimentality in modern international rugby.

As with hooker, four needs to become three at tight-head prop. Zander Fagerson’s suspension is up in time for him to wear the No 3 jersey in Scotland’s World Cup opener against South Africa in Marseilles on 10th September, so he’ll be in the squad, with 37-year-old veteran WP Nel as his deputy, which leaves Murphy Walker and another recent Edinburgh signing in Javan Sebastian fighting it out for that third spot.

Sebastian started the summer as outsider, but his strong performances off the bench against Italy and France have probably pushed him ahead of 23-year-old Walker – who has a big future but not enough recent game-time under his belt due to two long terms injuries to his hamstring and neck during the last two years.

Back-row is slightly more complicated because there are seven players in contention for six places. Rory Darge, Matt Fagerson, Jack Dempsey, Hamish Watson and captain Jamie Ritchie are certainties, leaving Luke Crosbie and Josh Bayliss as the two remaining contenders.

Bayliss – who plays his club rugby for Bath – was a late call-up to the training squad in place of the injured Andy Christie and he has grabbed his opportunity with both hands. He scored an excellent late try off the bench in Scotland’s first warm-up game against Italy and was part of another big bench impact last Saturday, while Crosbie’s game time has been limited to 69 fairly low-key minutes against Italy and he hasn’t been seen since.

Finally, scrum-half selection will depend on whether Ben White is going to recover from his ankle injury in time to be fit for the World Cup. He was getting an expert opinion on Monday and we have not heard anything since. If he is fit – which appears to be the most likely situation going by Townsend’s post-match comments on Saturday – then he will travel as first choice No 9, with George Horne and Ali Price as his back-up. And if White isn’t going to recover in time, then youngster Jamie Dobie will get his chance.

Predicted squad:

Forwards: Jamie Bhatti, Pierre Schoeman, Rory Sutherland, Ewan Ashman, Dave Cherry, George Turner, Zander Fagerson, WP Nel, Javan Sebastian, Scott Cummings, Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, Sam Skinner, Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey, Matt Fagerson, Jamie Ritchie CAPTAIN, Hamish Watson, Josh Bayliss.

Backs: George Horne, Ali Price, Ben White, Ben Healy, Finn Russell, Chris Harris, Huw Jones, Cameron Redpath, Sione Tuipulotu, Darcy Graham, Kyle Steyn, Duhan van der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn, Ollie Smith.

Missing out: Stuart McInally, Murphy Walker, Luke Crosbie and Jamie Dobie