At LEAST 50 players still active in the game have played international rugby for Scotland in the last two or three years. Even given that a match-day squad now consists of 23 players, and given the proliferation of international matches and summer tours when, for one reason or another, some have been absent, that’s a sizeable number. It may indeed explain why we have had so little success. Admittedly the question which comes first – a settled team or a winning one – is like the old chicken-and-egg question, but there’s undoubtedly a close relation between them.
Now, for the autumn internationals, Vern Cotter has named a squad of 33, only one member of which, young Mark Bennett, is not yet capped. He will surely start against Argentina on 8 November, and is the most exciting Scottish back since Stuart Hogg came on the scene. After his glittering performance against Bath, some remarked that he runs better lines than any midfield back we have had since Alan Tait. I would add only that his twinkle-toed ability to change direction and accelerate away from his marker reminds me of Jim Renwick. Tait and Renwick? That’s more than enough to burden the lad with.
Attention has also been focused on some of those left out, notably Kelly Brown, John Barclay, Jim Hamilton and Max Evans. I’m surprised by two other omissions: Pat MacArthur, to my mind the best all-round rugby player of our current crop of hookers, and Peter Horne who has played a big part in Glasgow’s brilliant start to the season. But Brown’s and Barclay’s omissions are most controversial, since both have been in excellent form for their clubs, respectively Saracens and the Scarlets; and both had outstanding games last weekend, Brown against Clermont Auvergne, Barclay against Toulon. Opposition does not come much tougher than these two.
Cotter has stuck with three other players from the English Premiership: Duncan Taylor of Saracens, and the London Irish pair: Blair Cowan, a New Zealander, and Kieran Low, who played five or so years ago for England under-20, and may well then have thought he was English. Taylor has had a few caps without looking anything out of the ordinary, and neither Cowan nor Low seemed special on our summer tour. But evidently Cotter sees more to like in them than in Brown or Barclay, and perhaps he thinks that some of those he has left out have grown too accustomed to losing in a Scotland jersey.
In the absence of the injured Matt Scott, Cotter may well field an all-Glasgow division: with a back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour; Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar in the centre; either Duncan Weir or Finn Russell at 10, and Henry Pyrgos at scrum-half.
On form nobody could reasonably object to that line-up, though some would doubtless prefer Tim Visser to Seymour and either Chris Cusiter or Greig Laidlaw to Pyrgos. Cusiter was, of course, a Glasgow player last season, so would doubtless fit in easily.
The second row, whoever partners the new captain Grant Gilchrist should be all right; the back-row likewise, whatever permutation Cotter goes for. But there are serious worries about the front row, even if one admits that success or failure in the set scrum depends as much on the referee’s interpretation of the law and reading of the game as on the players themselves.
Get on the right side of the referee and you may have a dominant scrum. Get on the wrong side and you are sunk. This is all the more the case since, despite the best intentions of the law-makers, the set scrum is again becoming a means of winning penalties rather than of getting the ball to the backs. Sad, but the solution still evades everybody.
Nevertheless, last weekend was perhaps the best our two pro teams have had in Europe. Edinburgh did remarkably well to win in Bordeaux, since their hosts have been in rampant form in the Top 14. This may only be the Challenge Cup, the subsidiary competition, but the result suggests that Alan Solomons is beginning to get things right. Indeed, Edinburgh, having won away from home, should go on to win their pool, for neither of their other opponents, Lyon and London Welsh, is anything special
As for Glasgow, their demolition of Bath was a joy to watch. They scored five tries and might have had a couple more. But the outstanding feature of their performance was the quality of their defence. Bath have been rattling up big scores in England with lots of tries, but they got absolutely no change out of Glasgow. When you get English journalists enthusing over a Scottish team’s style of play, and you have Sean Edwards saying Glasgow’s was the stand-out performance in what was overall a terrific first weekend of the new European Cup, you can be sure it was pretty special.
Now, if Glasgow can carry it on against Montpellier today, and if Scotland can play in the same manner in November and the Six Nations, we might even be in for a happy season. Which would be an agreeable change.