THE Rugby World Cup squad announcement may be a quadrennial jamboree deserving of Barnum and Bailey style showmanship with fireworks, marching bands and dancing girls, but, whether by design or accident, yesterday’s presentation of the 31 deserving players was more like watching the prize for the biggest cabbage being handed out at a village fête. A crowd of no more than 150 odd souls wandered, almost by accident, into the University of Edinburgh’s impressive Old College Quad to lend what little atmosphere they could to proceedings.
Those missing out on selection included the veteran flanker, John Barclay, and the New Zealander who replaced him in Vern Cotter’s pecking order, Blair Cowan. It was a moment of irony noted by all when one imported “kilted Kiwi” – John Hardie – bumped another out of contention.
“It’s is tough on the coaches, it’s tough on the players,” said skipper Greig Laidlaw about the whole elongated selection process which seems to have taken as long as the World Cup itself. He was right, but no one suffered more than Rob Harley.
The Glasgow flanker was listed in the initial training squad as a lock, but Cotter then listed his three most important qualities as “power, power and power”. As a second-row forward, Harley makes a great flanker and he would have been better advised to have stuck to the No 6 shirt where he made such an impact in Glasgow’s Pro12 final victory.
Still, coach Cotter has covered most of the bases helped by versatility within the squad. He has a breakaway who can play lock (David Denton) and a lock who can return the favour (Tim Swinson). He has two hookers who can double up in the back row, a centre Richie Vernon who did exactly that for Glasgow in the European Cup last season and two scrummies who are comfortable in the No 10 shirt. Perhaps the only yawning gap in Cotter’s squad is a lack of experience.
Barclay, Ruaridh Jackson, Jim Hamilton and Chris Cusiter all missed the cut and all of them would have brought precious World Cup experience to call upon. In fact, this must be one of the most inexperienced Scotland squads to have competed in a World Cup.
It isn’t necessarily Cotter’s fault or rather, it isn’t his choice. He didn’t determine that South African “project player” WP Nel only qualified for Scotland just before the Turin Test, that his colleague, Josh Strauss, doesn’t qualify until 19 September, on the day after the opening match of the tournament, and that the NZRFU didn’t release flanker Hardie from his Highlanders’ contract when he first asked the question over a year ago.
All three, you fancy, will appear in Cotter’s first-choice XV and, as things stand, they will bring with them just three caps of international experience between them. When New Zealand triumphed in the 2011 World Cup and when England won the big one in 2003, both teams had a core of nine players with 50 or more caps to their name. This entire Scotland squad has two, Sean Lamont and Ross Ford, and Clive Woodward’s Dads Army proved a good deal more effective than anything Captain Mainwaring commanded in Walmington on Sea.
Another Scottish breakaway forward Ryan Wilson has just ten caps in the ledger and the first-choice locks may not be much better off if Cotter plumps for Jonny Gray (14 caps) and Grant Gilchrist (ten caps). In fact, a potential back six of the scrum, Nel, J Gray, Gilchrist, Hardie, Wilson and Strauss, average six caps each.
In the backs Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Peter Horne are exciting, occasionally brilliant, players, but none of the them has much experience to draw upon with ten, ten and eight caps respectively. One spot wider and wings Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland boast just 52 caps between them, although they can always look to Sean Lamont (96 caps) who has more international experience than most of the others lumped together.
The USA Eagles, drawn in the same pool as Scotland, announced yesterday what their coach called a “relatively inexperienced group” because 20 of them are in line to make their World Cup debuts. For Scotland that number is 25.
Experience is not the only aspect to take into consideration, it may not even be the most important thing, but it is undoubtedly a thing. It matters, especially in the World Cup, which is a tournament like no other.
The opposition are bigger and the hits are harder. The pace is lung-busting while the playing field and time itself seem to shrink in a manner even Stephen Hawking would struggle to explain. The nerves are on edge and raw emotions are never far from staging a bloody civil war with the rational half of the brain.
It is an utterly unique occasion and only six players in this Scotland squad know what is about to hit them.