In the official statement which accompanied yesterday’s announcement of Scotland’s World Cup training group the first quotes attributed to head coach Gregor Townsend referenced “the depth and level of competition” for places in the final 31-man squad and that, at least, is true.

That has, however, been the case for many years and results in high level competitions such as the Six Nations Championship and the European Champions Cup indicate that any progress that has been made in that regard has been limited.

Scotland must still rely on a combination of players who emerge from a homegrown development process that remains woefully over-dependent on the tiny percentage of youngsters nurtured in our private schools and those who have been overlooked in the countries in which they grew up, so are using dual-qualification through bloodlines or see the opportunity for a second chance as ‘project players.’


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If that seems harsh, the best way of analysing the quality of talent on an individual basis is to consider how many of those listed yesterday might be involved if a British & Irish Lions tour was the focal point of this rugby year, rather than a World Cup.

Two years ago there were just two Scots selected by Warren Gatland in his initial 41-man squad for the tour to New Zealand. By now that might have increased, but Stuart Hogg would again be the only certainty, while Finn Russell might now be trusted to have more of his good days than his dodgy ones and if Townsend’s assessment of how Duncan Taylor is regarded at Saracens, he might be considered, with strong cases also likely to be made for Edinburgh front-row pair Stuart McInally and WP Nel.

Beyond that, the only other Scot to have shown down the years that he has match-winning qualities which elevate him, quite literally, above the vast majority of his peers in the international game, is Richie Gray, which only seems to make his omission from yesterday’s squad all the more telling.

In explaining his thinking, Townsend made it clear that there are players whose anticipated contributions are such that even when badly short of match practise, they are considered automatic selections. He did so principally in his explanation of the inclusions of Taylor, who has not played this season, but also the uncapped Blade Thomson, who made a decent impact in his first few weeks with the Scarlets after being allowed to leave the Hurricanes in his native New Zealand, but has not played since being concussed back in November.

As the only current Scotland international to have been deemed good enough to take the field in a Lions Test match and, indeed, to have contributed to both a Test and series win in doing so, Gray might have been expected to have been seen in a similar light to those two as he seeks to regain full match fitness. Instead, the 29-year-old has effectively been told he has to do more to impress and that looks to be as indicative of the requirements of the squad as a whole as it is of the individual.

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Largely because it began to look a bit silly when the team was running out of steam in matches, we have heard much less over the past season about the goal of ‘playing the fastest rugby in the world,’ which players and coaches regularly trotted out in the first year under the current management.

Townsend has never, however, been one for acknowledging mistakes, so it is safe to presume that that philosophy remains central to the head coach’s thinking and, given his determination to be seen to play the game in a particular way, he has little choice but to seek to achieve it through the collective.

The message from Lions selectors time and again in the professional era has, after all, been that Scotland lags far behind the other Home Unions, let alone the rest of the world, in terms of talent identification and development.

If, then, matches are not only to be won, but won playing in the style that the man in charge believes to be his trademark, every member of every match 23 must be capable of consistently reproducing what skills he has at the highest possible speed. To do so requires a willingness to put in the effort required to achieve fitness levels that are repeatedly talked about by Scottish coaches, but have rarely been demonstrated, particularly when players have been subjected to the added energy-sapping stress of having to perform in unfamiliar surroundings, given the striking contrast between results at Murrayfield and elsewhere.

Towards that end, the more prosaic approach of Gray’s younger brother Jonny is rather better suited to his coach’s needs as he relentlessly roams the field looking for opponents to knock down. However, the decision to leave open a slot at lock seems to indicate that the coaches also know that the 6’10”, near 20 stone Toulouse lock remains one of the few truly special talents available to them and must be accommodated if at all possible.

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While Townsend pointed out that Glasgow Warriors pair Scott Cummings and Rob Harley also have at least one and hopefully two matches in their home city in which to make cases for themselves, there is nothing about the abilities or current form of two men who have played consistently throughout the season, that the Scotland management does not know.

The same could be said of Gray, who is also one of the few homegrown players to have made a real mark outside of Scotland at club level with big money moves to Sale, Castres and Toulouse, but it would seem that in the couple of months he has been back in action following what was an extremely lengthy lay-off, there have been aspects of his play that are considered to offer cause for concern. Likeliest of those is the desired work-rate, not least because the nature of the French domestic game, to which Gray has adjusted so well over the past six years, is very different to the high octane Pro14 competition, particularly for front five forwards.

He has, then, around a month in which to make his case or the Scotland selectors perhaps have a month in which to realise the implications of leaving one of their few globally recognised talents behind when engaging in meaningful competition with the world’s best.