Scotland's Mike Blair eyes consistency and selection battles for Rugby World Cup
Twenty three days from today, Scotland will play their first World Cup warm-up match against France in Nice. Forty days from now, Gregor Townsend will name his squad for Japan. In 46 days time, they will depart. In 59 days, they will play their opening match against Ireland in Yokohama.
A tournament that has always seemed an age away is suddenly looming large. "Consistency is absolutely crucial for us," says Mike Blair, veteran of three World Cups as a player and heading for a fourth as one of Gregor Townsend's key assistants. "Throughout the Six Nations, we had some moments of brilliance, but we've also had periods where we've almost fallen off a cliff.
"That consistency of performance is something that we as coaches have been focusing on and we're trying to get that message across to the players. Everyone is talking about the Ireland game, but we're also aware that if we don't play to the best of our ability in the other games [Samoa, Russia and Japan] then they're potential banana skins.
"We feel that, if we play to the best of our ability, we can can beat any team in the world, but there is a big jump between playing to the best of your ability and not. That consistency is as relevant against a Samoa, Russia, Japan as it is against an Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand. There are things we need to get right, but if we are able to put exactly what we want on the pitch, we have a chance of being able to beat anyone in the world."
The field of science is full of boffins, all trying to figure out how Scotland can look like world beaters one week and absolute duds the next. In fact, it's not even week to week sometimes. It's half to half, as evidence by the surreal events at Twickenham in March.
They are brilliant and brutal, inspired and insipid, irresistible and vulnerable. Ireland will be looking at them sideways, suspicious of what they might produce, almost fearful that they will deliver one of those performances when everything sticks while hoping they deliver one of those performances where everything stinks.
Bizarre workouts and heaviest weights
These are interesting weeks. The preparation is meticulous, the planning done with microscopic detail.
Blair remembers how these World Cup training weeks used to be. Back in 2003, the players sweated in the hothouses of the Botanics in Edinburgh preparing for a World Cup being played in Australia's autumn.
"It was bizarre," he says. "There was the pond in the middle and round the outside there was literally that [small] width before the bushes on the other side and they had the rowing machines lined up. When the big guys were on the rowing machines, the machines would move and (as they rowed) they were very close to going into the water.
"Four years later, it was all about getting big and, boy, did some of the guys get big. Jason White was lifting the heaviest weights, one in each hand, and we had to order in extra heavy dumbbells for him."
Scotland are in camp this week in Edinburgh having had two previous camps in Portugal and Inverness. The squad will get whittled to a final 31 on 2 September and the permutations are intriguing in that regard.
Taylor choice has domino effect
It was interesting to hear Blair talk about Duncan Taylor, the Saracen who has been plagued by injury these past few years, so much so that, despite being a guy who Townsend rates hugely, he has only played in three of the coach's 23 Tests in charge. Those were the first three in the summer of 2017.
"Duncan's been excellent," Blair says. "He trained the last three or four weeks of the season with Saracens and I think there was even some chat that if Brad Barritt had not got through his [hamstring] injury before the [Premiership] final then Duncan would have potentially dropped straight in.
"He has a great way about him. He doesn't say too much, but he has that voice that you want to listen to. If he has an opinion on something, it's often stronger coming from him than from a coach."
Taylor is fascinating in that, if he's fit, he's a certainty to make the 31 and if he makes the 31 then that has a range of spin-offs. He's at his best in midfield but has played extensively on the wing and can also cover full-back. With such a versatile player in the ranks, Townsend has options.
Townsend will pick a maximum of four centres. A fit Taylor would be one, Sam Johnson would be a second, a firing Huw Jones a probable third.
That leaves one spot for the other five in his current training squad - Pete Horne, Nick Grigg, Kyle Steyn, Chris Harris and the possible bolter, Rory Hutchinson.
'Really good players will miss out'
How many wings and full-backs are needed if Taylor can be utilised in both positions? Possibly three wings - Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Darcy Graham - and one full-back - Stuart Hogg. Where does that leave Blair Kinghorn?
"There are some really tough decisions to make, especially centres and back-row, where we've got world class players," Blair admits. "Some really good players are going to miss out, but that's really good for us as coaches because these guys realise that, they realise that a very good player is going to miss out and are desperate for it not to be them. We see the standards rising in those areas.
"The young guys, the fearlessness, the energy, the exuberance they bring will often lift the guys who are maybe starting to feel a little old. They'll come in and raise them and, in turn, the older players don't want to show the young guys that they are feeling old. That balance within the squad is really important."
Townsend rarely gives things away, but it's fair to say that, injury permitting, about 24 of his 31 are pretty obvious. It still looks up for grabs for the fifth prop, the fourth lock (Sam Skinner will surely travel as a lock/blindside flanker), two of the five back-row slots, a wing and a centre or two.
An incredible summer of sport has played out without much of a peep from the rugby world. That'll change soon enough, though. The countdown is well and truly on.