A WEEK before Scotland head to France for their first Rugby World Cup warm-up matches, four players have been axed from the training squad.

Gregor Townsend, the head coach, admitted the cut came earlier than planned but reckoned the original 44-man group was too unwieldy for a match week so Gary Graham, Henry Pyrgos, Nick Grigg and Kyle Steyn have all been sent home.

Dashing a player’s hopes ahead of a big game or competition is one of the hardest things a coach has to do but Townsend has learned that there is no point in putting things off.

“It is part of the things you have to do,” he said. “The players realise that too. They know there were 44 players here and it has to come down to 31 [for the Rugby World Cup]. They are training beside players of real quality and competing hard.

“This is the biggest thing in four years. For some of them, who have done eight weeks of training, it is going to be really disappointing but all the players going back to their clubs are in great physical condition and have made a lot of improvements. Injuries happen in the four Tests coming up and in our four pool games in the World Cup.”

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All the same it cannot have been easy for him to pull the quartet out of the group and not just tell them they were going home but that they were leaving a week earlier than planned.

Two of the four would probably have known they were long shots but the other two are more of a surprise.

Graham, for example, probably knew he was lucky to have been there in the first place and after eight weeks of living the dream, reality had to strike sooner or later.

Likewise Pyrgos, for all that he was a squad regular four years ago and captained the side during their 2016 trip to Japan, must have understood he has been overtaken by Ali Price and George Horne. With Greig Laidlaw also in the mix, only injuries could stop it being a question of when he would leave, not if.

The other two are a different story. Both Grigg and Steyn must have expected at least to be given a chance to showcase their talents during the four warm-up games.

Grigg, after all was the man in possession of the 13 shirt at the end of the Six Nations; when he got injured once he was back at his club, Steyn moved into it, though he was mainly seen as a wing in this squad.

“Not only did Nick [Grigg] start the Calcutta Cup match, he started the two games previous to that,” Townsend said. “It will be disappointing for him and it was a very tough decision for us.

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“We do have players like Huw Jones and Duncan Taylor available who were not available at the end of the Six Nations. We also believe other guys showed really good form at the end of last season and in training, so there was always going to be a lot of competition.”

As for Steyn, Townsend reckoned it was more a question of unlucky timing. Steyn came from the sevens set-up to the XVs only at the start of the year and this was simply too early.

“He has just burst on to the scene with Glasgow and done very well,” the coach said. “The players he is competing with in the wing position, the likes of Tommy [Seymour] and Sean [Maitland], have played well for Scotland for a number of years.

“He’s been very unlucky, I think this World Cup has come just a bit too soon in his career. He’s another we can call on; we know he’d do a great job.”

The squad was always likely to be cut back in phases with players being dropped before the final cull at the start of September, but Townsend realised that with a short injury list he needed to act sooner than expected.

“There was going to be a cut but it has come a week earlier than planned,” Townsend explained. “It is credit to the quality of the players we have that it was a very tough decision and they were tough conversations but we know they will be ready if they need to be called back.”

The only major worry is hooker Fraser Brown who is expected to be fit by early September. Sam Johnson has a slight ankle problem but they expect him back in action soon.

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That means that players like Taylor, who has hardly played over the last two seasons because of injuries, is available and came through a training game against Edinburgh this week.

“Duncan played in that game, a full bloodied training game. He came though it well. It was his first game in 11 months. He is ready if selected for that first game,” Townsend said.

“There are people we want to see playing because they are coming back from injury or certain combinations we want to look at.

“Putting that in a mix delivers us a team to play against France in Nice. There will be changes before the game the following week, then we’ll see where we are.”