Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has a number of touch decisions to make as he looks to trim his roster to 31 before the World Cup.
Injuries during the Six Nations to established players gave opportunities to some up-and-comers like Jamie Ritchie, Blair Kinghorn, Darcy Graham, and Magnus Bradbury. They filled the shoes of their teammates well enough to really push for a place in the World Cup team.
The bulk of the Scotland side that toured North America a year ago was, at the time, relatively inexperienced. The team had it's ups and downs, but overall made out quite well on their trip and grew alot as a unit. They thumped Canada 48-10, then dropped a thriller to the USA 30-29, before heading south to dismantle a first-string Argentina side 44-15.
(Of the 15 players who started in the USA match, 12 are included in this summer's World Cup training camp.)
Between the experience gained in the last year throughout the depth chart, and the successes of both Edinburgh and Glasgow this season in the Pro14 and the European Champions Cup, Townsend has a headache when it comes to cutting down the roster.
There are the obvious locks; Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Hamish Watson, Stuart McInally, and Jonny Gray will be in the first XV without too much worry. Outside of them it gets tougher:
The front row will most likely include McInally, Allan Dell, and WP Nel, but behind them there is a battle for spots between Zander Fagerson, James Bhatti, Simon Berghan, and Gordon Reed. Whoever holds his own in the set pieces and has the fitness to get around the park for extended periods of time during the Summer Tests will earn the right to make it to Japan
Gray is a lock as a lock, but outside of him there is healthy competition for spots. Scotland doesn't necessarily boast a star-studded cast of second rowers, but the ones they have outside of Gray are grinders that can work well over the course of a World Cup. It figures to be Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist alongside Jonny Gray, with Sam Skinner likely to be the fourth if they decide to bring that many.
Former captain and back-row menace John Barclay is back in the mix, but he'll have a hell of a time trying to wrestle a spot from Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, and Ryan Wilson. A healthy Scotland back row is dangerous, but again health will be key. With a World Cup opener against Ireland on the horizon, the Scots will need to figure out their combinations in the upcoming Summer Test Series matchups against France and Georgia.
Highly-experienced halfback Greg Laidlaw is still fighting for a chance to finish out his test career with a bang. He'll have to out-duel Ali Price, Henry Pyrgos and George Horne to do so, and it's not a done deal that the Clermont man will be able to do so. In all likelihood though, his World Cup experience and overall class should get him on that plane to Japan, and potentially in the starting lineup.
Flyhalf is the least contested position. It is unmistakably Finn Russell's spot. When he plays well, it's impossible to say there's another first-receiver in today's game that can create magic like he can. It's his spot and his alone, and behind him will be his understudy from his Glasgow days, Adam Hastings.
INTERVIEW | Stand-off Finn Russell believes little has changed in his approach since his 2014 Scotland debut, but accepts personal and team-wide plaudits mean expectations have.https://t.co/5F9APqST7b— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) July 31, 2019
The battle will be for the third spot on the plane to Japan, but with Stuart Hogg and Pete Horne's abilities to also cover the flyhalf spot, it's possible Townsend just brings Russell and Hastings.
The decision on centers would appear to be fairly straightforward, with Sam Johnson and Huw Jones seemingly the favorites for the starting spots. However, between Peter Horne, Nick Grigg, and Saracen Duncan Taylor there is still solid competition for the roles. How each player performs in the Summer Test Series will be huge.
The most difficult position group to gauge is the back three. This is the most crowded unit, and it includes a mixture of youth and experience. Hogg is a sure-go for Japan, but outside of him it's tough to say.
Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland are both British Lions, and Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn, and Byron McGuigan are younger players who impressed during the Six Nations.
Ultimately, how these players perform in the Summer Test Series will decide whether or not they make it to Japan, but regardless it will not be easy for Gregor Townsend and his coaching staff.