An ARM injury which rules Richie Gray out for the remainder of the RBS Six Nations Championship has left Scotland searching for a replacement to nullify any lineout threat from the Irvine-born son of a former Ayrshire ice-cream seller.
The visit of Italy to Murrayfield on Saturday week will go ahead without the 44-times capped Gray after he was found to have damaged tendons in an injury which saw him withdrawn after 56 minutes of Sunday’s 26-23 home defeat by Wales.
Gray may have gone but there is likely to be an identical number of Scots-born second rows on the field, with Italy having twice this tournament placed their faith in Fettes College educated George Biagi –even when the venerable Marco Bortolami was considered fit enough to return to the starting line-up alongside him at Twickenham last weekend.
Moving from Fettes, where he is believed to be the first rugby cap produced since Sir Bill Gammell in the 1970s, to university in Italy is a relatively straightforward journey compared to how Biagi found himself in the Azzuri boilerhouse, however. Recalling his Fettesian days after graduating to Italian provincial rugby, first with Aironi and now Zebre, the 6ft 5in and 18st 1lb Biagi paid tribute to teachers Duncan Harrison, Bruce Russell and Paul Kesterton and said: “They stuck me out on the wing where I could do the least amount of damage at first which seems quite hard to square with my size nowadays.”
Biagi’s uncle, Willie Gibson, is an SNP councillor in Saltcoats, and while there may be some split loyalties in the visitors’ camp, the focus in Scotland is firmly on getting a win to ease mounting agitations and that means finding a replacement for Gray, who is out for 12 weeks.
There are also concerns over the fitness of prop Gordon Reid, who has a knee injury which is causing concern.
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Added to the squad, and on the day of his 28th birthday no less, is Glasgow’s nine times capped Tim Swinson.
But, according to a former Scotland captain, Gray’s absence means it is time for one of the squad’s most senior players to put his stamp on the side.
Colin Deans has watched plenty of 32-year-old Jim Hamilton’s Aviva Premiership displays from a base south of the border and is a fan.
Noting how the 58 times capped Hamilton is now at Saracens after spells with Leicester, Edinburgh, Gloucester and Montpellier, Deans said: “Every club Jim joins seems to give him a new lease of life.
“Like Martin Johnson (ex-England) and Paul O’Connell (Ireland) there is a steeliness about him. If Jim had come on earlier against Wales at the weekend then he just might have been able to pull things together.
“Okay, the stupid penalties given away at times by Jim are frustrating. But at least he is always in the thick of things. He’s worth his salt. Jim doesn’t take any s*** and even looks a bit leaner and fitter.”
Scotland’s latest display has left Deans perplexed. “I still can’t make up my mind if it was a step forward or a step backwards,” he said. “What I do know is if Scotland do not wipe out Italy, things are serious.
“I’m looking for a 30-point win in a match where we have to be ruthless.
“That was lacking at times against Wales but you learn from getting things done to you and Wales were ruthless with the few chances they had.
“Wales will know they didn’t deserve to win but you have to credit them for finding a way to get over that line. They really wanted victory.
“With Scotland there was just too much panic especially in the last ten minutes when composure and vision was lacking.”
Deans is adamant Scotland’s inexperience showed when challenging referee Glen Jackson in his first Six Nations match.
“When a perfectly legitimate try by Mark Bennett was ruled out for an alleged forward pass I would have expected Greig Laidlaw to have gone straight up to the ref demanding a referral to the TMO. Instead the touch judge seemed to be making the call. That’s where the inexperience of this Scotland team showed but going forward I want to see the experienced men like Jim Hamilton and Ross Ford lead from the front.”
Scotland’s propping woes, which surfaced with Jon Welsh being ruled out of the tournament with a fractured hand continued yesterday when his Glasgow colleague Reid, was found to have a torn medial knee ligament. The SRU seemed to be keeping options open by declining to set a return date for Reid and while the tighthead side will be covered with the return of Euan Murray, providing loosehead cover for Ally Dickinson might mean a call for yet another Glasgow prop, Alex Allan.