Several established Scotland players could be left disappointed as Gregor Townsend prepares to swing the World Cup axe, assistant coach Danny Wilson has warned.
The Dark Blues have stepped up their preparations for the tournament in Japan with a training camp in St Andrews and Wilson says competition has never been fiercer.
Head coach Townsend was forced to adapt during this year’s Six Nations as injuries left his original blueprint in tatters.
But that opened the door for rookies like Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie, Sam Skinner and Darcy Graham to impress and all took their chance.
Now, with the casualty list clearing, Wilson admits there will be surprises when the current 44-man training squad is slashed to leave the group of 31 who will board September’s flight to the Far East.
He said: “We’re in that nice fluffy time when everyone’s getting on really well because there’s no selection, but that’s around the corner for us.
“I’m seeing a Scotland squad that – touch wood – is all fit and I’m seeing lots of competition for places and an intensity in training.
“Genuinely there’s places up for grabs. The bonus of the Six Nations this year is that players got opportunities off the back of injuries, but those players took those opportunities.
“That gives a real selection headache when players come back fit.
“In Scotland we need that competition and depth, and the bonus from the Six Nations is that we’re developing that.”
Wilson was brought in last year to replace forwards coach Dan McFarland after he was head-hunted for the top job at Ulster.
Under Wilson’s predecessor, the Scotland pack was a well-oiled machine, but it has taken the former Dragons, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues set-piece expert time to get his ideas across.
However, the three-month build-up to Scotland’s first Pool A clash against Ireland in Yokohama on September 22 has given him ample opportunity to get to the bottom of the problems that blighted Townsend’s team as they finished fifth in the Six Nations with just a win and a draw.
He said: “The time makes a huge difference. Before a Test match you’re trying to ram a huge amount in.
“This is far different, like a pre-season, so you’ve got a chance to work on the finer detail.
“Slowly but surely (I’ve been putting my stamp on things). It’s been well documented that during the Six Nations we had a different group in terms of the injuries we had.
“Now to have the likes of John Barclay back in the squad, to work with these guys and see a healthy squad that we didn’t have during the Six Nations, it’s been good for me to build relationships and spend more time on the training pitch.
📸 The Scotland squad returned to training this morning with a focus on skills, srummaging and shape, before a series of conditioning-based games.— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) July 30, 2019
This week also sees the first wear of our new training kit 👌 pic.twitter.com/4zfFA6NhN0
“During the Six Nations we were number one at scrum time on our own ball, but we need to improve on opposition ball a bit because sometimes we were under pressure.
“Line-out wise, our ball was also pretty good, the drive attack and defence was reasonably good.
“We probably want to affect opposition ball a little more, because perhaps we set a foundation to make sure no-one drove against us, but it affected our ability to steal in the air. We need a balance moving forward.”
Scotland’s prep work for Japan has already started bleeding in aspects that will ready them for the hot, humid conditions they can expect in Japan as Townsend looks to avoid a costly slip.
“Obviously, Gregor having such an eye for detail, we’ve been working on a lot of things,” said Wilson. “We’ve even been training with a wet, slippery ball because of the humidity we can expect in Japan.
“We’ve put in place all sorts of bits and pieces to give ourselves the best chance to settle in quickly.”
Mike Brown has revealed that England’s heat camp in north east Italy is causing players to shed half a stone in weight during gruelling training sessions.
Treviso was picked to host the 12-day visit due to the similarity between the conditions there and Japan, the setting for this autumn’s World Cup where humidity for September is an average 73 per cent.
The level drops only slightly in October when the majority of the competition will be played and former Brave Blossoms coach Eddie Jones knows that central to a team’s prospects will be their ability to acclimatise.
Brown has suffered along with his team-mates in the first of England’s two Treviso camps, insisting they are more punishing than playing Test matches.
“It’s incredibly tough. It’s been about 80 per cent humidity so as soon as you step outside, everyone starts sweating,” Brown said.
“You are absolutely dripping with sweat and that makes ball-handling very tough. It’s also hard to keep your core temperature low because you are sweating all the time.
“It just sits on your skin and then heats up even more so you can’t get your body temperature down. It’s really sunny here as well so you’re constantly feeling incredibly hot.
“We have guys coming on and spraying us with cold water and we’re constantly trying to wipe the sweat off you so your skin gets the chance to cool down.”
England’s World Cup hopefuls, who will be trimmed to a final 31-man squad on August 12, are weighed before and after each session.
“On our first really hard session I lost 3kg of weight. Back in England, I would barely lose any weight from a normal session in normal conditions,” Brown said.
“After a Test match, I would probably lose a maximum of 1kg. And that’s playing at the highest level under massive fatigue. So that puts into perspective the weight loss that you can get over here.
“The nutrition guys make sure you get the right things after training to put that weight on. We have protein shakes and bars, fruit and liquids with proper salts to get the hydration back in.
“Once you have taken all the right things, we will go and eat lunch and you are pretty much back on it by the afternoon session. It’s no problem as long as you do the right things.”
Brown’s presence in Treviso seemed improbable at the start of the month after England’s most capped full-back was left out of Jones’ initial World Cup training squad.
The Harlequin had been frozen out since winning the last of his 72 caps on the 2018 tour to South Africa but now has now been offered a glimpse of selection for Japan 2019.
“You have that doubt at the back of your mind when you’re left out, but Eddie said just be ready,” Brown said.
“I went straight back to Quins and was welcomed with a Bronco fitness test. That was pretty savage. I was over the moon to get the chance to come back in and continue.
“I am a competitive animal and I absolutely love playing for England, it means everything to me.
“It’s great to be here and I am trying to show what I am about and show what I can bring to the team.”
Georgia have been banging on the door of European rugby’s powers that be for several years now.
When The Lelos hosted Russia in March 2017, a sell-out crowd of 55,000 turned out in Tbilisi to watch the game.
And those kind of attendances have been pretty regular occurrences in recent years, with the game steadily growing in stature after winning the second-tier competition – Rugby Europe International Championships – for eight of the last ten seasons.
Widely regarded as the best team outside of the top-tier Six Nations sides, many believe the eastern European outfit are at least as deserving as Italy to be included in the championship.
They were even ranked two places ahead of Italy prior to this year’s Six Nations, but this is largely because the Azzurri face top opposition in the majority of their fixtures, while Georgia’s rankings points were recorded from wins over the likes of Germany and Belgium.
And even when Georgia faced the perpetual Six Nations whipping boys last November, they were blown off the park, which underlines the gulf in class between tier one and tier two teams at present.
With various developments in place to help improve lower-ranked sides, it’s hard to see the Georgians mixing with Europe’s elite any time soon, even if there have been calls for their inclusion in the Six Nations.
A quick review of the top nations they have faced since 2017 and only two high profile nations stand out, where they were narrowly beaten by Wales (13-6) and hammered by Argentina (45-19).
Still, if their 2018 form is anything to go by, where they won eight out their 11 Tests, then confidence should be high ahead of September’s World Cup.
With Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay to play in Pool D, the Georgians should be targeting at least one or two victories in Japan and cap a best-ever World Cup display.
In their last four appearances at rugby’s global showpiece, they have averaged one victory, with their most productive tournament coming in 2015, when they triumphed against Namibia and Tonga.
In terms of playing style, Georgia are a big, powerful side that will take some beating, regardless of the opposition.
Whereas No10 is the most central position for teams like Australia and Wales, it’s the forwards who tend to be the heroes in Georgia, with the game being heavily based on set-piece power.
The Georgian style of play is like many of the eastern European nations, making rugby like another form of wrestling. Their pack are primarily made up of former wrestlers who will turn the scrum and maul into an arm wrestle in a bid to steal possession.
Expect plenty of big ball carriers to ruck, maul and scrummage the ball up the field at every opportunity.
In the backs, there is little spark to set the world alight, and although they try hard, their timing and positioning that can let them down when trying to defend opposition attacks.
The squad itself largely play their rugby in France, with 16 players plying their trade in the TOP14 and PRO D2, while eight players compete in Georgia’s Didi 10 league.
Three other players, including their most capped stars Davit Kacharava (113) and Lasha Malaghuradze (90), play in Russia’s Professional Rugby League.
And while Lelos fans are still contemplating life without their hero Mamuka Gorgodze, who retired two years ago, Number 8 Otia Giorgadze has emerged as the heir to ‘Gorgodzilla’s’ throne.
Although it may take time to capture the imagination of fans the same way Gorgodze did, Giorgadze has buckets of potential and time on the grand stage will only help his development and leadership going forward.
The Georgians are a work in progress, and although they continue to push for Six Nations inclusion, they are an exciting team with plenty of heart and power.
Nickname: The Lelos
Head coach: Milton Haig
Captain: Merab Sharikadze
Most caps: Merab Kvirikashvili (115)
Top scorer: Merab Kvirikashvili (838)
Top try scorer: Mamuka Gorgodze (26)
Home stadium: Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, Tbilisi
Key Player: Otia Giorgadze. The 23-year-old Tbilisi man is a fearless ball carrier and solid in the tackle, and will be key to the Georgian’s prospects in Japan later this year.
Best result: Pool stages (2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015)
Fixtures: Wales (September 23), Uruguay (September 29), Fiji (October 3), Australia (October 11)
DID YOU KNOW?
It costs just one pound (Dhs 4) to get into a rugby game in Georgia and the stadiums are sold-out regularly.