Absent friends give Scotland hope for Six Nations

Matt Scott was back in action for Edinburgh yesterday after a long lay-off. Picture: SNS

Matt Scott was back in action for Edinburgh yesterday after a long lay-off. Picture: SNS

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THE Coen brothers once produced a film entitled The Man Who Wasn’t There and no analysis of the recent autumn internationals would be complete without a mention of the players who had cameo roles in the games or didn’t appear at all.

The most obvious absentee was the man Vern Cotter originally nominated as captain, Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist who celebrated the news by breaking his arm against Lyon. The Alloa man can feel hard done by, but he should be back in contention for the Six Nations which leaves Cotter a headache. Does he revert to his original choice or stick with Greig Laidlaw who was immense throughout?

It is worth remembering that Martin Johnson only skippered England to World Cup glory in 2003 because Clive Woodward saw his original choice of captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, endure a run-in with the British tabloid press.

England were probably good enough to win the William Webb Ellis Cup with Mickey Mouse leading them on to the field, but it is an interesting “what if” scenario to imagine Dallaglio captaining England instead of Johnson.

If Gilchrist is to battle his way back into Scotland’s starting XV, a prerequisite for any leader, he would probably have to displace Richie Gray, because brother Jonny was outstanding throughout the series. Richie is much the taller of the two, which makes him easier to tackle, but he still did a heap of work, especially in defence and he won’t give up the shirt without a fight.

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There are three number eights who made (almost) no contribution. David Denton make it on to the pitch against the All Blacks but only briefly, while Ryan Wilson made his comeback for Glasgow and Josh Strauss doesn’t qualify until next September.

Denton won the man of the match award in his first-ever international start, against England at Murrayfield, but he has never quite scaled those heights again. However, he is the type of player that Cotter appreciates, lacking some of the more subtle offloading skills, but compensating with an appetite for hard graft.

Taken purely on Glasgow’s 80 minutes against the Scarlets on Friday night, neither Struass nor Wilson would trouble the Scotland selectors for long. In mitigation, the South African was pulling up trees earlier in the season and Wilson is not long back after an injury lay-off.

Still, Adam Ashe and Johnnie Beattie are the men in the squad and the challengers will have to go some to replace them.

There are so many quality eights available that Cotter may be tempted to utilise one or more on the blindside flank. Strauss played in the number six shirt against the Scarlets. Rob Harley may have other ideas. He is another of Cotter’s favourites, a workhorse who makes the Duracell bunny look like a sloth.

On the subject of players appearing out of position, Ryan Grant replaced tighthead Geoff Cross late in the game, a specialist loosehead filling the number three shirt. The last time that happened, Alasdair Dickinson was given an impromptu yoga class by the French front row in Paris back in 2009. Grant handled the Tongans well enough, but whether he would manage the switch against a strong scrummaging side is a moot point. Jon Welsh is just back from injury but he needs time in the saddle and plenty of it.

Two Edinburgh backs complete our line-up of missing persons. Dougie Fife played no part in the autumn series and yet he has pace, footwork and he is probably the best winger Scotland have in the air.

New Zealand seem to field three fullbacks whoever is picked in their back three and aerial excellence is growing in importance. Tommy Seymour made one try by picking Semesa Rokoduguni’s pocket when Glasgow played Bath.

And finally, it was nice to see Matt Scott back in action yesterday for Edinburgh after a long lay-off following a shoulder operation. The centre is the forgotten man of Scottish rugby, overshadowed last season by his colleague Alex Dunbar and put in the shade this season by his own injury and the form of Mark Bennett.

Scott is a class act and he will be a contender come the Six Nations provided he gets a little better luck. Sean Lamont brings wonderful aggression and physicality, but he doesn’t have an outside break or the hands of a card shark which all the best outside centres need. Scotland will not get the best from their dangerous back three until they field a midfield that can deliver the ball to them in timely fashion.

If Cotter wants to pair Scott with Dunbar the next question for the Scotland coach is which way around should he do it? Scott has played most of his rugby at 12 but he looks to some more like a natural 13 with an eye for a break and the pace to exploit it.

Dunbar looks perfectly happy in either the 12 or 13 shirt. Both men are physical and fast with it. Perhaps Cotter will revert to the old-fashioned style of playing them left and right, a tactic which poses a different question to the opposition defence depending upon the direction of play.

Scotland play France in Paris first up in the Six Nations and, if Cotter can integrate a few of the missing persons into his matchday squad, the Scots will be rubbing their hands in anticipation.

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