Older readers will remember the story of the telephone conversation between Peter Brown and his younger brother Gordon. Peter had just been recalled to the Scotland team. “Fabulous,” said Gordon; then, after a pause, “who’s out?” “You are,” said Peter and rang off. It may not have gone just like that. Peter may have commiserated but it’s a better story this way.
There’s never likely to be such a conversation between Richie Gray and younger brother Jonny, who will pack down together at lock this afternoon, but only because players no longer learn their fate by way of a telephone call from a selector. Instead, starting XV and replacements are announced in a team meeting, and the disappointed have to smile and muster such sincerity as they can in order to congratulate the chosen.
Unless the Gray brothers both have a storming autumn series, one of them is likely to be disappointed come the Six Nations when Edinburgh’s Grant Gilchrist, Vern Cotter’s original choice as Scotland captain, is fit again. Which will it be? Aged only 20, Jonny is ridiculously young for an international lock, and he is, of course, much less experienced than his brother, as well as being some four inches shorter – not that he’s exactly small. Moreover, Richie is a British Lion, almost an endangered species here in Scotland. Yet there are some who think that Jonny is at present the better all-round player.
Certainly Richie hasn’t become the dominating force he looked like being. When he first played for Scotland, he seemed to have the makings of the greatest Scottish lock since Gordon Brown. One thought he would be as important to Scotland as Paul O’Connell has been to Ireland or the great Fabien Pelous was to France. It hasn’t worked out like that, though, at 25, there is still time. But one has the uneasy feeling that his game hasn’t developed, and may even have gone back since he left Glasgow to play for a struggling Sale side, and then moved on to Castres, currently languishing in the lower depths of the Top 14. So this autumn series is perhaps as important to him personally as it is to Scotland. If he doesn’t deliver, he may find himself slipping down the ladder.
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When a player leaves Scotland, the word from Murrayfield usually is that this is fine because the experience will help him to improve. It ain’t necessarily so; and any of today’s young Glasgow stars whose eyes light up if their agent dangles French or English cheques before them should be warned. Not everyone benefits from moving away.
Today’s match would be fascinating even if it wasn’t the first home game for the side Cotter is forming. The record of Scotland-Argentina fixtures is odd. Recently we have won away and lost at home. Now Argentina come fresh from their first victory in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship. Fresh in one sense of the word, perhaps not so fresh in the other. In theory, it’s an advantage to have come here after playing a six-match international series. In practice it may not be. A succession of high intensity matches takes its toll.
Every autumn we look for signs that Scottish rugby is not faced with a miserable northern winter, but rather that, reversing the seasons, it’s springtime at Murrayfield. Sadly, despite the occasional gleam of sunshine, we usually find that we’re stuck in, and with, winter.
Still, nobody who wasn’t an optimist could continue to follow Scotland devotedly, and at least the older members of the faithful can remember how long periods of failure have occasionally been followed by brighter days. The wheel does turn.
Actually, it is not difficult to find reason to be hopeful today. We have a back division that is capable of scoring tries, more capable, it may be said, than any we have fielded since 1999 when we won the last Five Nations title. We have a choice of reliable goal-kickers, and no team wins more than the occasional match if it can’t kick its goals.
There are admittedly questions about the pack. The front-row of Alastair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Euan Murray is very experienced, but the back-row of Rob Harley, Adam Ashe and Blair Cowan is anything but – fewer than a dozen caps between them. It’s not, I suspect, the back-row that many outside the Scotland management would have expected to see.
It is indeed a young side, with Finn Russell, Mark Bennett, Jonny Gray and Adam Ashe all 22 or under. But they are all players in form, who are there not with an eye to the future but on merit now.
It is also a team picked to attack, though, in modern Test match rugby, the ability to attack depends unquestionably on the establishment of a secure defence. Indeed, it is often the quality of the defence which creates attacking opportunities.
Best of all, there is the suggestion that Cotter wants his team to play head-up rugby, responding to what is in front of them, rather than playing by numbers according to pre-ordained systems. Off-the-cuff rugby has its dangers, but it also creates chances. Let’s hope for a bit of flair and a bit of the old organised chaos which allowed players like John Jeffrey and Finlay Calder to flourish.
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