A ruined palace that was birthplace to a doomed queen may not be the most auspicious of venues in which to unveil a squad for a global tournament, but Gregor Townsend is confident that, at their best, the group of 31 he announced are capable of beating anyone at the Rugby World Cup.
Asked if his team could win the tournament, the Scotland coach stopped short of making himself a hostage to fortune by answering unequivocally in the positive. But he will certainly take his squad to Japan in a confident frame of mind and is convinced the squad is the strongest he has been able to assemble since taking over from Vern Cotter two years ago.
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“Success would be playing to our best,” Townsend said after announcing his playing group one by one in front of a public gathering in the grounds of Linlithgow Palace, the childhood home of Mary, Queen of Scots. “We’ve got to play to our potential on 22 September [in the opening pool game against Ireland] and keep that going right through the tournament.
“We know – and we’ve seen it – that when we play to our best we’re a match for any team in the world. And whether that’s how we defended and attacked against New Zealand, or against England or Australia, against those top teams in the world when we’ve played our best we’ve won those games – obviously New Zealand, we almost beat them.
“We’ve got a stronger squad now than we’ve ever had. To have everybody available now should mean we’ve never been in a better position over the last two or three years to play at our best.”
Of the group of 40 from which Townsend selected his final squad, only Sam Skinner had been ruled out by injury. The loss of the Exeter lock meant only eight more players had to be cut: Jamie Bhatti, Magnus Bradbury, Matt Fagerson, Rory Hutchinson, Huw Jones, Byron McGuigan, Grant Stewart and Josh Strauss were the ones to miss out, with the Northampton Saints centre Hutchinson the unluckiest after impressing off the bench in both warm-up games against France then scoring two tries in his first start, against Georgia.
“Rory came very close but just missed out as he’s not had enough international experience, especially against some top teams,” Townsend said. “We know we have players in the group who have performed really well for Scotland in the bigger games.”
Skinner would have gone to Japan as a lock-cum-blindside, a role that the Scarlets flanker Blade Thomson, fit again after being concussed on his debut against the French, will now attempt to emulate. Thomson is one of five back-row men in a squad that includes 17 forwards in all. There are five props, with the tighthead Simon Berghan likely to provide loosehead cover, four locks, and three hookers, including the captain, Stuart McInally.
The 14 backs consist of three scrum-halves, two fly-halves, four centres and five back-three players. Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay are McInally’s vice-captains.
Mary, Queen of Scots got her head chopped off. If Scotland can keep theirs, they have a fighting chance of delivering their best performance at a World Cup since reaching their only semi-final back in 1991.