TO pinch an idea from Samuel Johnson: when a player knows he might be cut in a couple of weeks, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Johnson, admittedly, was referring to a clergyman fraudster who was about to be hanged, so it is on a totally different level to the ups and downs of sporting fortune, but the overall concept is still valid. Deadlines and pressure can be – and often have to be – inspiring. All the Scotland back row players in the Scotland Rugby World Cup training squad know that.

The first of Scotland’s pre-Rugby World Cup warm-up Tests is now less than a fortnight away and then there are just four matches to separate the fliers from the stay-at-homes when the squad heads for Japan.

“It’s a fresh slate for everyone,” said openside Hamish Watson. “Obviously if boys have had a really good autumn or Six Nations that’s going to be at the back of [coach] Gregor [Townsend] and the coaches’ minds but when you come into these massive pre-seasons before a World Cup, it is a clean slate.”

It means that though Watson has been one of Scotland’s stand-out performers over the last three years, even he knows he has to produce more than his eye-catching pinball- ball carrying if he is to make the final cut.

“It feels good to have a lot of comp-etition in the back row, that’s been one of the strongest parts of our team for a while now,” he said. “There’s nine of us plus Sam Skinner who can play back row too so it’s great to have all that competition and us all pushing each other.

“There are going to be some gutted boys when it gets cut down because you can only take five or six. It’s pretty tough but we’re all just training hard and see what happens.”

There is the nub of it. If you assume Skinner goes to cover both the second and back rows, then there are nine specialist back rows in the squad and probably only five places to play for.

In reality, for all his modesty, Watson is probably the most secure – injury or a truly catastrophic performance could take him off the plane but at the moment, he is securely belted in – which leaves eight others who know half of them will travel, half will stay at home. That’s about as intense as it can get.

Injuries play a role in trying to work out who falls into which camp, none more so than two players at the opposite ends of their Scotland careers, John Barclay and Blade Thomson. Neither played much last season, Barclay, a former captain, with a torn Achilles’ tendon; Thomson with a bad concussion that took six months before he was over it.

It remains a searing injustice that, assuming Barclay goes, it will not be his fourth World Cup after making his debut in 2007, playing in 2011 but being idiotically left out in 2015. On the other hand, he also had a bad concussion two seasons ago before wrecking his ankle, so he has not played a lot in the last two seasons. He turns 33 during the World Cup, and is short of match practice, but if fully fit and firing it is hard to see him not going.

When it comes to Thomson, the issue is that nobody is totally sure what he will bring having missed his chance to make his Test debut in November when he got his head knock playing for the Scarlets at Murrayfield. He could be the answer to Scotland’s acute need for a big, ball-carrying back row, but until he plays at Test level, nobody can be sure.

Looking to the rest, Josh Strauss, who is heading back to South Africa soon, has never been a favourite of Townsend as he is a coach who focuses on work rate, and since Gary Graham did not start a Six Nations match despite the injury crisis during that campaign he has probably come back to Scottish roots too late.

That leaves Ryan Wilson, Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson. Wilson has 43 caps of

experience and is a long-term Townsend favourite, but there is all to play for with no one seeming to have a huge advantage.

“I think there are two separate cuts at separate times,” said Watson. “The first two [warm-up] games you want to play as well as you can. A lot of selection is going to come down to those first two games [against France away and home].

“Obviously all the training we’ve done – we’ve been in for six weeks and Gregor will have a slight idea in his head – but if you don’t pitch up for those games it’s going to be hard to select boys. Those games will have a big impact on selection. You could have had the best Six Nations of your life and got player of the tournament but if you haven’t pitched up these last six weeks in camp and had the wrong attitude you’re probably not going to get picked. You’ve got to try and play well in these summer friendlies and train well.”