Gregor Townsend has selected a 41-player training squad ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, and there are plenty of talking points for fans to sink their teeth into.
Coming off the back of a third-place finish in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, Scotland fans can be optimistic about their chances when they cross the Channel to take on the world’s best – with Scotland in the same group as defending champions South Africa and Grand Slam winners Ireland.
Years of progress under Townsend are reflected in a squad that boasts an abundance of depth as well as some genuine world-class talents.
As a result, the Scotland head coach will be forced to make some incredibly difficult decisions when he cuts the squad from 41 players to 33.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the big calls Townsend will have to make ahead of the start of the tournament in September.
Who can capitalise on Jonny Gray’s injury woes?
Jonny Gray looks set to miss the 2023 Rugby World Cup after dislocating his knee last month.
The 77-cap international’s absence is a major blow to Townsend’s hopes of leading Scotland to glory in France, but one second row’s loss is another lock’s gain.
Scott Cummings, Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, Cameron Henderson and Sam Skinner are the five locks in the extended training squad, but you have to believe that only four will be on the flight to France.
Jonny Gray would have been all but guaranteed a place on the plane were it not for his injury, but now Townsend’s selection at second row is right up in the air.
Richie Gray returned to the international stage in sensational style during the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, while Gilchrist started all four of his side’s Autumn Nations Series games and their first three Guinness Six Nations matches, so as things stand, they should make it into the 33.
Sam Skinner has also done well in recent times and can cover the back row as well, so you have to assume that it is a straight shootout between Cummings and the uncapped Henderson for the last second-row spot in the 33.
Battle for fly-half
The likelihood is that at least one of Adam Hastings, Ben Healy, Blair Kinghorn and Finn Russell will be cut when Townsend reduces his squad from 41 players to 33.
It is hard to imagine a world where Russell is not on the plane to France, while Kinghorn deserves to be named as his understudy after two seasons of shadowing the 30-year-old maverick.
That would appear to leave it as a battle between Healy, who made his debut against Italy in the final game of the Championship, and Hastings, who is now back fit.
At 23, Healy is certainly a talent for the future, and the experience of a Rugby World Cup could prove crucial in the long term.
However, Hastings has plenty of international pedigree and the skillset to cause some of the best teams in the world problems, so do not be surprised to see Townsend stick with his more experienced star.
A big call at hooker
There are four hookers in the 41-player squad, but only three will survive the cut and make it to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Ewan Ashman, Dave Cherry, Stuart McInally and George Turner are the men battling it out for the coveted number two shirt.
Turner looks certain to make it onto the plane having started all five of Scotland’s 2023 Guinness Six Nations games but behind him, all three candidates have a case.
McInally is a former captain, who led the side at the last World Cup, and will be bidding to bow out on a high before he retires.
Sale Sharks star Ashman is only 23, but he has impressed when given opportunities off the bench for both club and country.
Cherry, with eight caps, might seem like a long shot, but has not disappointed when given the opportunity and as a late bloomer, is used to proving doubters wrong.
Someone will miss out in the back row
Scotland have some ridiculously talented players in the back row, but realistically only six will make it to France later this year.
That means at least one of Andy Christie, Luke Crosbie, Rory Darge, Jack Dempsey, Matt Fagerson, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson won’t be at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
As captain, Ritchie is a sure thing, while Fagerson looks likely to go having won 12 caps in the last 12 months.
Watson’s consistency in recent years should be enough to get him on the plane, and Jack Dempsey is the perfect player to provide cover at No.8.
That leaves the significantly less experienced trio of Christie, Crosbie and Darge potentially battling for just two spots – an embarrassment of riches for Townsend.