THE countdown to the World Cup starts here – and for some players may end here too. The 2019 Six Nations will be no time for experimentation, while the warm-up games later that year will offer an occasion for little more than fine tuning. For those players hoping to force their way into Gregor Townsend’s squad for Japan, this summer’s tour to Canada, the United States and Argentina represents by far the best chance.

There are four Autumn Tests to come this year, and, as the Scotland coach pointed out when announcing his 33-man group for next month’s three-match tour, nothing need be set in stone this far out from the World Cup itself. Nonetheless, he made it plain that for those players fortunate enough to be involved, the games in Edmonton, Houston and Resistencia could be their ticket to Japan.

“It’s not the last chance, but it’s a great opportunity,” Townsend said. “We certainly have the World Cup in our mind when we’re planning what a 31-man squad will look like in 14-15 months’ time. Obviously things will change with injury and form, but we believe the players on this tour have a chance of being in that squad.

“They could play their way into that squad and have a real lasting memory of what they did on this tour – and they could certainly play their way out of that squad by what they do. But there’s obviously still a lot of rugby to be played.”

The stakes are perhaps highest for Adam Hastings, who will travel as the only recognised stand-off in the squad given Finn Russell is being rested. The lack of specialist back-up to Russell has long been one of Scotland’s most glaring deficiencies, and ideally Townsend would take two out-and-out 10s to Japan in addition to cover from other backs such as Peter Horne and Ruaridh Jackson.

Those two may see some game time at stand-off in the Americas, as could new boy James Lang, but the coach made it clear that identifying a reliable deputy for Russell was a priority.

“It is important. Obviously Adam’s played there at Glasgow this year, and played well recently, which is great. I thought he played really well in the Six Nations period, and then coming off the bench against Edinburgh he looked confident.

“Peter Horne played very well against Connacht for Glasgow. Ruaridh Jackson – who hasn’t played there for Glasgow this year, but has played really well for Scotland – is another player who we would potentially look to play at 10 on tour, but a lot will depend on what we see with Adam. He’s there as a 10 and will get an opportunity this summer.”

An in-form Hastings, then, will find himself pushing at an open door. Conversely, others in more competitive positions may not only have to excel, but also rely on more established names dropping out of the picture.

As things stand, Russell is just one of a large handful of regular first picks who can expect to return to the fold later this year. John Barclay, Jonny Gray, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Gordon Reid, Tommy Seymour and Ryan Wilson are also being rested, while John Hardie, Huw Jones, Willem Nel and Hamish Watson have been listed as unavailable due to injury.

That makes 12 in all who are set to be in the World Cup squad – which, as Townsend said, will contain two fewer players than this summer’s group. In other words, a large number of players who set off for Canada in a few weeks face an almighty fight to be on a flight to Japan in 16 months. The fact that the uncapped Edinburgh forward Luke Crosbie was also named in the injured-and-unavailable category only adds to the complexity of the battle.

Unusually, there is uncertainty too about the make-up of the coaching team for 2019. Forwards coach Dan McFarland has just begun a nine-month notice period before departing to take over at Ulster, and Carl Hogg, who is about to stand down as head coach at Worcester, will assume some of McFarland’s duties on an interim basis. A near contemporary of Townsend’s who won five caps for Scotland as a Melrose player, Hogg has a chance of staying on in the longer term, but no more than that, according to the head coach.

“He will be on tour with us as part of the coaching team,” Townsend said of the 48-year-old. “It’s an opportunity for Carl to coach on this tour and to be one of the options we’ll be considering after the tour. He’ll be in charge of the line-outs, Dan will focus on scrum and contact, whereas before Dan would have looked at the line-outs as well. So far in our meetings, the combination has gone really well.”

For all that Hogg is not even being presented as front-runner for the impending vacancy, his availability could be a big factor in his favour if, as is wholly possible, McFarland leaves early. The Scottish Rugby Union’s public stance is that the Englishman will see out his contract, but that could well change if Ulster offer a significant buy-out fee. Should that happen around the start of next season, Hogg would at least offer some continuity going into the Autumn Tests, even though at present he has no guarantee of still being involved then – “TBC”, was Townsend’s terse reply when asked if his fellow-Borderer would be around in November.

TBC will also be the watchword for Hastings and others this summer as they hope to cement their positions in the World Cup squad. The competition for those 31 places is going to become fiercer by the match, as Townsend hopes Canada, the USA and Argentina discover to their detriment next month.


For tour to Canada, United States and Argentina


Alex Dunbar (Glasgow) 29 caps

Nick Grigg (Glasgow) 4 caps

Chris Harris (Newcastle) 2 caps

Adam Hastings (Glasgow) uncapped

Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh) 9 caps

Stuart Hogg (Glasgow) 60 caps

George Horne (Glasgow) uncapped

Peter Horne (Glasgow) 33 caps

Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow) 32 caps

Lee Jones (Glasgow) 8 caps

Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh) 2 caps

James Lang (Harlequins) uncapped

Byron McGuigan (Sale) 3 caps

Ali Price (Glasgow) 16 caps

Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 21 caps


Simon Berghan (Edinburgh) 8 caps

Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow) 8 caps

Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh) 2 caps

Fraser Brown (Glasgow) 31 caps

Lewis Carmichael (Edinburgh) uncapped

Allan Dell (Edinburgh) 10 caps

David Denton (Worcester) 39 caps

Matt Fagerson (Glasgow) uncapped

Zander Fagerson (Glasgow) 16 caps

Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh) 22 caps

Richie Gray (Toulouse) 65 caps

Luke Hamilton (Leicester) 1 cap

Murray McCallum (Edinburgh) 1 cap

Stuart McInally (Edinburgh) 17 caps

Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh) uncapped

Tim Swinson (Glasgow) 36 caps

Ben Toolis (Edinburgh) 9 caps

George Turner (Glasgow) 2 caps


Saturday 9 June: Canada v Scotland (Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton) kick-off 7.10pm local (2.10am Sun 10 BST).

Saturday 16 June: USA v Scotland (BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston) kick-off 8pm local (4am Sun 17 BST)

Saturday 23 June: Argentina v Scotland (Estadio Centenario, Resistencia) kick-off 4.40pm local (8.40pm BST)