HEAD coach Vern Cotter insisted yesterday that there are “a whole raft of positions” up for grabs in his final World Cup squad after he named an experimental line-up to take on Ireland in Dublin tomorrow evening in the first of four warm-up Tests.
Hugh Blake, the 22-year-old New Zealand-born flanker, will win his first cap in what will be only his second professional start since he arrived in Scotland last year. Edinburgh utility back Greig Tonks will get a run-out at stand-off, with Wasps’ Ruaridh Jackson moving from his more familiar No 10 berth to start at full-back.
There is a strong Glasgow feel to the backline, with captain Henry Pyrgos joined by a Warriors centre pairing of Richie Vernon and Peter Horne, veteran Sean Lamont adding some experience on the wing. Tim Visser, who left Edinburgh for Harlequins at the end of the season, is on the opposite flank.
In the pack, Grant Gilchrist, who was named captain for last year’s autumn Test series but didn’t feature after injury ended his season, returns at lock. Alongside Blake in the back-row, Blair Cowan moves to blindside flanker and Edinburgh’s David Denton, who missed the end of the season under return to play protocols following a head injury, starts at No 8.
There are a couple of enforced changes to the initial 25-man travelling party which was announced on Tuesday, with Ross Ford on the bench in place of Stuart McInally, who has a stomach bug, and fit-again Matt Scott covering the absence of Tommy Seymour with a strained hip.
The only other uncapped member of the matchday 23 is Glasgow prop Mike Cusack.
“These guys get first opportunity,” said Cotter yesterday. “There are a few frustrated players and a few more to come.
“The measures we get back from the performance against tough opposition will give us some true indicators of where we are at. We have 46 players who have worked very hard and there are positions to be taken in the 31. There is a whole raft of positions these guys are playing for. Most importantly they get first opportunity from the 46.”
Asked if all members of the squad will get an opportunity to play at some point in the next three games, before the final
31-man squad is named, the coach replied: “We would like to think so. “We have assessed players over the last two months in sessions where they have been opposed to each other and we now need to see them against opposition.
“Some people can train badly and play well. Some can train well and play badly. It’s an opportunity and I think most players will get game time over the next three weeks.”
It emerged this week that Chris Cusiter has not been involved with the squad, opting instead to train with his club Sale and be with his family following the birth of his first child.
Cotter said: “I spoke to Chris and he felt he needed to spend time with his family. As we know in the game, families come first. We have been doing our bit with preparation, he has been doing his bit with his club.
“We respect his choice. If we need him to talk again about being involved we will have a conversation.”
Asked if Cusiter was effectively now in a standby role and that the trio of Pyrgos, Greig Laidlaw and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne will be the scrum-half unit in England, Cotter said that Cusiter may not even rejoin the squad in the event of an injury.
“We have three half-backs [scrum-halves] who are going through the process of selection over the next three weeks,” he said. “Chris is a proven professional and, if the team needs his expertise for one reason or another, we know we can contact him.
“If we get an injury to one of those three, we will look to take someone in his place or to go to the World Cup with two half-backs may be an option.”
Cotter, who said up to three captains could be tried out in the warm-up Tests but a single captain will be appointed in the final squad, had good news regarding the recovery of Glasgow centre Mark Bennett.
“Mark has got another week to reinforce his shoulder,” said the coach. “He’s probably 1 per cent off getting on the paddock, so we didn’t risk it this week. He will be available, I think, as from next week.”
The situation surrounding fellow Warriors midfielder Alex Dunbar is more precarious. Cotter said: “At the moment it’s 50-50. We don’t know. I was never any good at gambling. The bets I put on the horses I lost every one.
“We’ll have to make a decision based on where he’s at, and I think over the next two weeks we’ll get an idea whether it’s positive, and we can hope, or whether it’s going to be we might have to think about other options now.”
Cotter extended his Scotland contract by an extra year earlier this week and said: “I’m really enjoying working with these guys. They’re a good group because they work hard, they’re honest and they have their feet on the ground.
“It’ll be nice to be able to work longer with them, so I’m really happy with it [the contract extension]. But now we’re fully focused on what comes next in this World Cup. I don’t really like talking about myself.”
Team to play Ireland at Aviva Stadium
15 Ruaridh Jackson
14 Sean Lamont
13 Richie Vernon
12 Peter Horne
11 Tim Visser,
10 Greig Tonks
9 Henry Pyrgos (captain)
1 Ryan Grant
2 Fraser Brown
3 Jon Welsh
4 Jim Hamilton
5 Grant Gilchrist
6 Blair Cowan
7 Hugh Blake
8 David Denton
Subs: Ross Ford, Gordon Reid, Mike Cusack, Rob Harley, John Barclay, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Duncan Weir, Matt Scott.