Scotland pick England Under-20s duo of Andy Christie and Ben White for Six Nations

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Just when you thought Gregor Townsend had pulled so many rabbits from his hat that there were no more leporine surprises available to him, the Scotland coach has named a 39-man Six Nations squad that includes five uncapped players and excludes several ever-presents.

Scotland pick England Under-20s duo of Andy Christie and Ben White for Six Nations
© Getty Images Scotland pick England Under-20s duo of Andy Christie and Ben White for Six Nations – Getty Images

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The presence of Edinburgh scrum-half Ben Vellacott and Glasgow openside Rory Darge ahead of the tournament opener against England a week on Saturday is no surprise after a barnstorming few months for both players, but Townsend’s selection of Saracens back rower Andy Christie and the London Irish pair of wing Kyle Rowe and scrum-half Ben White was characteristically out of left-field.

So, too, was the absence of a whole slew of prominent internationalists, most notably stand-offs Adam Hastings and Ross Thompson, with Townsend opting for Finn Russell and Blair Kinghorn as his frontline tens. Eighteen months ahead of the 2023 World Cup in France, several other players who have featured recently were also notable by their absence. In the backs James Lang, Huw Jones and Matt Scott, plus scrum-halves George Horne, Jamie Dobie and Scott Steele are all overlooked. Up front, Fraser Brown, Oli Kebble, Dave Cherry, Blade Thomson and Rob Harley were also surplus to requirements.

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Several others were recalled after a spell out of the Scotland squad. Edinburgh back rower Magnus Bradbury returns after recapturing the form he showed at the start of his Scotland career, WP Nel is also selected after missing the Autumn Nations Cup, and Northampton centre Rory Hutchinson features for the first time in two years. Another centre based south of the border, Bath’s Cameron Redpath, also returns to the squad a year after injuring himself in his first and only cap, last year’s 11-6 Calcutta Cup win over England at Twickenham.  

For Townsend, the fact that he has been able to make so many changes to a squad which finished with three wins for both of the past two years points to a burgeoning strength in depth. “Certainly in my experience as a coach, assistant coach, and probably as a player too,” he said when asked whether this is the strongest Scotland squad he has ever had to pick from. “The competition for places is intense.

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Scotland pick England Under-20s duo of Andy Christie and Ben White for Six Nations
© Provided by The Telegraph Gregor Townsend, Head coach of Scotland looks on prior to the Autumn Nations Series match between Scotland and South Africa at Murrayfield Stadium – Getty Images

“The other week we had Sione [Tuipulotu] and Sam [Johnson] playing in the centres for Glasgow, and James Lang and Mark Bennett playing for Edinburgh in bonus point wins. We had Matt Currie coming in the following week, we had Matt Scott playing for Leicester, the current league leaders, Huw Jones playing for Harlequins, last year’s champions, [British Lion] Chris Harris and Rory Hutchinson. And that’s just in one position. Players are playing well at the highest level of the club game. So it is very competitive and that’s a good sign.”

The most interesting selections are at fly-half. Russell remains the incumbent, but Kinghorn has only switched to ten this season, is still learning the ropes and is not yet a placekicker of Test-match quality. Captain Stuart Hogg has also started at ten, while Townsend sees Rory Hutchinson “being able to play in different positions, covering at 15 and 10”.

The Scotland coach insisted he is picking a squad based on form rather than with one eye on the World Cup. However, he expressed sympathy for players like Hastings, who has been a member of every Scotland squad since breaking through.  

“Adam’s unlucky, and those that miss out on the squad are right to feel disappointed,” he said. “They want to be in this squad, they feel that they deserve it, but he just missed out. He was involved in our last game in Paris, but we just feel Blair and Finn are playing better, but of course the door is still open for him and the others that missed the squad.”

But the disappointment of established players who have missed out is mirrored by the joy of those who have broken in for the first time. While Vellacott and Darge are well known to Scottish rugby fans, Christie, Rowe and White are not, but that could soon change.

“I know Gregor has been impressed with Andy during the season,” said Saracens coach Mark McCall of 22-year-old Christie, who has represented Scotland under-16s and England under-20s, and who can play across the back row. “He’s a fantastic athlete, a very skilful player who’s added consistency, collision winning and a low error rate. I think once Gregor sees him in the flesh, he’ll accelerate quickly into their matchday 23.”

Kyle Rowe is an astonishing story, with the 23-year-old wing from Dunblane leaving Edinburgh for London Irish after getting virtually no rugby, and now shining in the Premiership, where he recently scored a hat-trick against Saracens. His clubmate Ben White once captained England under-20s, played England age-grade rugby alongside Cameron Redpath and was the youngest player ever to play for Leicester Tigers, and has also rejuvenated his game since moving to London Irish.

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