VERN Cotter accepts the moment is drawing closer when he will have to tell certain players they won’t be going to the World Cup, but the head coach insists that there are plenty of spots in his final Scotland squad still up for grabs.
The New Zealander yesterday made 11 changes to the starting XV for tomorrow evening’s second World Cup warm-up Test against Italy in Turin.
There is almost an entirely new pack from the side which started the 28-22 loss to Ireland in Dublin last weekend, with seven new forwards and four changes in the backs. There are three new caps in the team – openside flanker John Hardie, wing Rory Hughes and hooker Stuart McInally – with the uncapped duo of Edinburgh wing Damien Hoyland and newly-qualified South Africa-born prop WP Nel on the bench.
Hardie, the New Zealand-born flanker who was added to the extended squad last month, is part of a new-look back row alongside Alasdair Strokosch and No 8 Adam Ashe. British and Irish Lion Richie Gray partners skipper Grant Gilchrist in the second row.
A new half-back pairing of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Duncan Weir, who scored a late winningdrop goal the last time the Scots played on Italian soil, leads a backline which includes a centre pairing of Matt Scott and Richie Vernon, with Edinburgh utility back Greig Tonks getting a run at full-back. Asked if he was dreading culling his current extended training squad down to the final 31, Cotter said: “Absolutely, it will be a very tough job to do. It will be tough to look some of those guys in the eye and say sorry. But from the outset that was the deal, so I will just sit down and be totally honest with them face-to-face and say these are the decisions we’ve made.
“The players are challenging each other, which is creating new challenges within, forcing us to take another look at the depth we have.”
Cotter revealed that prop Ryan Grant, the main casualty from Dublin, faces three to four weeks out with an ankle injury but will be fit by the time the World Cup starts.
“He’s given it a pretty nasty tweak and it will be a month, I’d say, until he comes through, three weeks to a month,” explained Cotter. “We’ve got another two weeks to make an evaluation but the doc is pretty positive that he’ll be alright. There is no fracture, he’s given it a good stretch, so it will just take a while. But he can play in the World Cup.”
Asked about the new boys in the team and on the bench, Cotter said: “They have been working hard so this is a good chance to have a look at them. They have been part of the two-month programme up to now and they deserve a shot so we will be able to look at them at another level.
“John Hardie is a good professional. He has gone about his work without making a fuss and he has learnt all he needs to learn. He’s looking forward to the game. He is showing a desire for what he wants. He wants to come over and play for Scotland. He hasn’t got a contract, he’s got no security. Everything will hinge on the training time he has had and the game he plays this weekend.”
For the second week running a few more established figures, the first-choice Six Nations half-back pairing of Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw for example, remain at home and Cotter admitted that there were some players whose capabilities were a more known quantity.
“There are players we have seen play more often than others,” he said. “We are trying to give everyone an opportunity to put their best foot forward and fit into what we’re trying to do.
“Last week, I thought some players put their hands up and played well. That’s what we were hoping for – to make it as hard as possible. We now have back-to-back games against Italy and the players that haven’t played up to now will almost be sure they get a run against Italy next weekend in the return match. Once we’ve done that we will sit down and have a good look at things.
“We will look at the right mix between forwards and backs and then the right mix for the team. I think it will take all morning. I don’t think it will be something that comes easily. I hope that the players to get their opportunities on Saturday play really well to make it as hard as possible.”
Meanwhile, former Scotland under-20 stand-off Tommaso Allan will again face the nation he once played for at age-grade level after being named in Jacques Brunel’s Italy team, replacing the injured Kelly Haimona.
Quintin Geldenhuys skippers the side, with the experienced trio of Martin Castrogiovanni, Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco on the bench.
Back-rower Sergio Parisse is rested after suffering from flu symptoms earlier in the week.
Scotland team to play Italy at Stadio Olimpico, Turin, on Saturday, 7pm BST, live on BT Sport
15 Greig Tonks (Edinburgh Rugby)
14 Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors)
13 Richie Vernon (Glasgow Warriors)
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby)
11 Rory Hughes (Glasgow Warriors)
10 Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors)
9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh Rugby)
1 Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors)
2 Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby)
3 Mike Cusack (Glasgow Warriors)
4 Richie Gray (Castres)
5 Grant Gilchrist; captain (Edinburgh Rugby)
6 Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan)
7 John Hardie (unattached)
8 Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors)
16 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby)
17 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby)
18 Willem Nel (Edinburgh Rugby)
19 Jim Hamilton (Saracens)
20 Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby)
21 Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors)
22 Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors)
23 Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby)