Gregor Townsend can’t be happy with Glasgow’s recent results, or indeed performances, but, paradoxically, Vern Cotter may not be too dismayed. If Glasgow had been carrying all before them, then the national optimism generated by the World Cup might have been translated into a ”Wha’s like us?” euphoria; and I don’t think our Kiwi coach does euphoria. I suspect that if you told him it was a beautiful day he would frown and say “and we’ll pay for it”. Which is of course very Scottish too. The point is: we may have come as close as can be to beating Australia, but Glasgow have lost to Racing 92 and Northampton. Or, to put it another way, they have been smothered by that pestilential driving maul. So at least we may approach the Six Nations in a realistic frame of mind.
Actually all six nations should be thinking like that, all a bit humbled by the northern hemisphere’s failure in a World Cup played in their own backyard. Scotland and Wales had a better tournament than the others, but we were crushed by South Africa and Wales couldn’t score against Australia even when their opponents were down to 13 men.
Ireland are the reigning champions, but nobody is going to think them unbeatable, even though Warren Gatland, playing his usual mind games, has installed them as favourites. They have no Paul O’Connell to drive them on, and, if Joe Schmidt was picking on form, either Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan would be at 10 instead of Jonny Sexton.
One no longer looks for surprises when a Scotland squad is named. I suppose this is a good thing, even if it was fun when selectors played a hunch and plucked someone from obscurity. Nevertheless, there are points of interest in Cotter’s squad. The selection of four No 7s – John Hardie, Chris Fusaro, John Barclay and Blair Cowan – and no recognised No 6 has one hoping that he is intending to field a Scottish version of Australia’s Michael Hooper-Dan Pocock combination. That might be fun. It might of course be a bluff; he could always play either Josh Strauss or Adam Ashe at 6, with David Denton, one assumes, the first choice 8.
The front five, injuries permitting, is surely settled, but I’m pleased to see Pat MacArthur as one of the three hookers in the squad. He has had days when his lineout throwing is unreliable, but he is a terrific rugby player, never far away from the ball and putting in hosts of tackles. The two young props, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson, are doubtless players for the future – Fagerson was still in primary school when Sean Lamont was first capped – but both look already capable of doing a good job in an international.
Injuries and form are the worries behind the scrum. Everyone should keep their fingers crossed in the hope that this will be enough to have Alex Dunbar fit and raring to go when England come north. Against Northampton last week there were some welcome signs – despite one horrendous failure to gather a catch when under no pressure at all – that Finn Russell’s game is beginning to click again.
In extenuation for that drop one should remember that it’s the quick-witted players like Russell and Stuart Hogg, or Andy Irvine of old, who sometimes muff a catch because they are thinking ahead of themselves, and mentally setting off on the counter-attack before they have fielded the ball. It’s infuriating of course when it happens, but you’d rather have players like Russell and Hogg than ones who are sounder but incapable of setting the game alight.
If Cotter’s squad was more or less predictable, the one welcome surprise being the inclusion of Barclay, the announcement of Eddie Jones’s first England squad followed a good deal of speculation. As it happened there were few surprises. All the same it may be a mistake to look for consistency from Jones, if only because he knows much less about the players at his disposal than Stuart Lancaster did. The word is that on Monday he will name Dylan Hartley as his captain. Given Hartley’s hot temper and disciplinary record this is a gamble. He may explode or he may be inhibited – he has spoken of “walking on egg-shells around the new England management team”. He played for an hour against Glasgow last week without any rash flare-up; he played without much distinction or making a mark on the game too. Interesting. Of course there is nobody in the Scotland team who might try to stir him up – is there? One can think of a few in the past who would certainly have been tempted to do just that, and might have agreed with Oscar Wilde that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”.