THE 2019 Six Nations Championship kicks off in under two weeks, Scotland taking on Italy in their opening contest in what is an important year of rugby with the World Cup taking place in Japan in September. For coach Gregor Townsend, it will be the biggest test of his tenure. So how do the Scotland players look ahead of an epic year, who does he see as being key over the coming weeks and months, and what has been his thought process on the big decisions?


You must be pleased seeing Finn Russell taking his game to a new level this season?

“It’s been great to see how well he has continued his form. He started the season really well and since he has gone back after November his running game has come out more, he’s really attacking the line, bringing others into play more.

“He plays a lot of rugby and that’s a good thing in terms of learning about different opponents and building on what you’ve done the week before, and obviously hopefully he gets through this weekend OK because that’s the only downside of playing a lot of rugby, you do have more chance of getting injured.”

He has played a lot of games, but he hasn’t been "beasted?"

“No, and Racing have been excellent. They rested him the week before the November Tests and the week after, they’ll rest him again . . . sorry, he might be rested soon! . . . and that’s a great relationship we have with them but also they understand that if Finn’s going to be playing international rugby, he can’t be playing every single week for them to get the best out of him and also for Finn to play as well as he can for Scotland.

“But he’s probably played more rugby than he’s ever played, just because the French season stars earlier and doesn’t have the same managed protocols he would have had with Glasgow.”

Russell and Adam Hastings would be Scotland’s starting tens. But how close was Duncan Weir to making the squad?

“Yes. I think the players in terms of Adam and Finn and other players that cover 10 that have been in the squad before, they deserve the right to be in the squad. Duncan has been playing really well, his defence has been excellent, his work rate and his kicking game have been very good. We’re probably looking at the 10s that we have to do something else as well, the running game and the passing game of Finn and Adam are excellent and Duncan’s working on that.

“He’s got a very good relationship with a couple of the centres at Worcester, Ryan Mills especially, they combine really well. It allows a second receiver to get in the game more so that could be an option for us in the future.

“The pleasing thing is we have two 10s, three if you count Finn, that are playing regularly outside Scotland in James Lang, too, who played a lot of rugby at 10 up until the last few weeks when Marcus Smith has got back in as 10 at Harlequins. But that’s great to see that we do have 10s playing outside Scotland.”

Like Edinburgh, Blair Kinghorn has had an outstanding month. Do you see him as a full-back or a back-three player?

“We’re thinking of him more as someone for the entire back three. He’s shown really encouraging signs of being a link player in the last few weeks, bringing others into the game. That probably lends itself more to full-back, but his running ability, the fact he played on the wing for us last year and scored a try against Ireland at the Aviva, and his speed, he could be selected on the wing.

“It’s a competitive area of the team. I felt the back three during November played really well. Sean Maitland was in top form, Tommy Seymour was back in great form as well and obviously Stuart Hogg has been an excellent player for us for a few years.

With Blair, Lee Jones who played really well down in Wales and Darcy Graham being in the form he is, just getting better and better, we have exciting competition in there just now.”

Huw Jones is in the squad, but can’t get in Glasgow team. Is it about picking the best players of forming the best partnership or combination at centre?

“Probably more the partnership. The partnership is important in terms of what you want to do as a team. Whether it’s someone who’s going to get you [over the] gain line, someone who is going to be able to pass. If they can do both then great. The partnership is very important in how they defend as well. It’s about communication, knowing what that person inside or outside you is going to do. The understanding is crucial.

“A couple of the games Huw has missed for Glasgow, he was injured. He obviously didn’t get selected for the Cardiff [European] game, but someone like Huw has done well in the past for us having not played that much rugby leading into last year’s Six Nations, for example.

“It was a similar situation in the [2017] November Tests – he’d come from Currie Cup and missed three weeks before those games. It’s great that he’ll be fresh and can’t wait to play, but match fitness and combinations are important too. The positive with Huw is that he’s been training beside those Glasgow players who make up a lot of the backs selected for this squad.

“I had a couple of chats with him during the November Tests. He was very open about the fact he was thinking about his future and that a couple of clubs had shown interest. He took that all on board in deciding what would be the right thing for him now in his career and we’re delighted he stayed at Glasgow.”


Is it a concern that the loose-heads are short of game time?

“Gordon Reid hasn’t played much since November. He had a niggling knee injury which he’s now clear from. Alex Allan had a four-week break following his red card so at least he’ll be fresh. Allan Dell maybe hasn’t started every game, but he’s being coming off the bench and playing at a high level with a team that’s playing really well. In terms of his physical state, he’ll be in a great position going into the tournament.

“We’ve been really pleased with how Jamie Bhatti has rediscovered his form. He’s carried well and his scrummaging has been excellent – I thought he did very well over in Treviso. With Alex missing those games, it’s allowed Jamie to get back in and show the form he was in for us the previous season.

Sam Skinner has played at lock and as a six. What do you see him as?

“Probably a second row. We’ve been really impressed with Sam since November and he’s played three times at 6 and three times at second row. Two weeks ago when Exeter beat Bristol I thought he was the best player on the field. He played really well at 6 at the weekend so he’s taken his game to another level through his own work but maybe the confidence he got off now being an international player.

“We do see him primarily as a second row. Playing as a 6 against South Africa he went pretty well and now having played two or three more games in that position we can see him playing there but I think his strengths at international level are more suited to second row.”


Is the Six Nations the main objective right now, or, just the precursor to the main event later in the year?

“Totally focused on the Six Nations. The Six Nations doesn’t change in its importance in a World Cup year, it just means for rugby fans we’ve got two outstanding tournaments.

“The Six Nations has grown in quality and exposure over the last few years with the quality of teams, more media involvement, and I believe it’s still going to be the same from a supporter’s point of view with great weekends, great rugby on show.

“So this year it’s still the same tournament. This is a hugely important tournament to the competing teams, to us as Scotland, and that is our focus. We’ve picked as experienced a squad as we feel we can put together because this tournament is about making sure that players know the level that is required. It’s much tougher than November Tests, much tougher than summer tours. We have to play at our very best to do well in this tournament.”