THE battle for Scotland’s scrum-half jersey will intensify in Glasgow on Saturday with Henry Pyrgos one of a number of players eager to press claims for a Six Nations berth.
The 24-year-old won his tenth cap against Japan in the autumn Tests, but has found himself behind Greig Laidlaw and Chris Cusiter in what has become one of several competitive areas in the Scotland squad. Scott Johnson will take charge of the Scotland team for the last time in the forthcoming Six Nations, with Vern Cotter taking over in June, and after spending 2013 trying to build his squad strength and introducing more young players earmarked for World Cup duty next year, he knows that his legacy as Scotland coach will largely rest on results over the next two months.
Pyrgos has been in the squad since making his debut against the All Blacks just over a year ago, but has not started since that the final game of 2012 against Tonga. He is hopeful of being named in Glasgow’s side to face Toulon at Scotstoun on Saturday as they bid to reverse the opening Heineken Cup loss in the south of France and give themselves a chance of qualifying for the Amlin Challenge Cup, knowing that that will help his case against the more experienced Cusiter and Laidlaw.
Pyrgos suffered in the first-half demolition by Toulon, being replaced after a half that ended 34-0 to the hosts. There is, therefore, much fuelling his desire to play well this weekend, and give selectors food for thought in the coming weeks.
“From a personal point of view it [Toulon game] wasn’t the best,” said Pyrgos, reflecting on the Toulon match with a sigh. “It was a great stadium and a great occasion, but I felt that I didn’t do myself justice. As a team, it was great to come back and get a bonus point, but we didn’t play as you have to against a top side. We made mistakes, but that’s what it’s like at this level of rugby.
“I wouldn’t say I was demoralised by it. You know it’s going to be a good test because they are a top side with quality players all over the park. At that level of rugby you are going to pay if you make a few mistakes. They played very well and they made us pay.
“I have been lucky enough to play for Scotland and that felt very much like a Test match. It was extremely quick and there was an awesome atmosphere with a packed crowd.”
Pyrgos will be part of the 35-man squad named by Johnson at Murrayfield today, but asked how much this weekend’s game might affect his hopes of actually playing in the Six Nations, the scrum-half insisted it was out of his hands.
“I’m not worried about that. It’s for the coaches to make those decisions. If I’m picked it will be great. Hopefully, I will get into the squad, work hard and just take it from there. I haven’t played as much as I would have liked, but you just get on and train hard and make the decisions hard for the coaches.
“I enjoy the competition in my position. There are things I can pick up from Cus that I can use definitely. I have watched and admired him growing up, so it’s great to be competing with him and everything about him is great.
“Niko has great skills and great game awareness so I can can pick up things from him there and obviously you pick each other’s brains about what to do in different areas of the pitch, and Greig has been around for a few years as well and is an experienced guy and very good player, so you definitely pick things up from him too.”
The former Scotland Under-20 cap knows it may be a waiting and learning game at the moment but, like any player, he would rather do his learning on the park. He has become a quality player and in Scottish pro teams of old he would probably have been more experienced by now having enjoyed lengthy runs in the starting line-up. But such is the increased competition, in quantity and quality, that a poor first half in the Heineken Cup was all it needed to curtail his progress.
Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend is keen to keep Pyrgos’ development moving forward and allow Cusiter the opportunity to stake his Test claim, while accommodating the unique Fijian Matawalu and bringing success to Glasgow. An intriguing balancing act.
Pyrgos was unsure yesterday as to whether he will be handed a rare second successive start this week after performing well with Ruaridh Jackson in the win away to Exeter on Saturday, but he is hopeful. Glasgow have sold over 5,000 tickets for Saturday’s final pool match against Jonny Wilkinson’s reigning European champions, but the capacity is now almost 7,000 and so it is not yet a sell-out.
Pyrgos is expecting an atmosphere to make another travelling French side uneasy, and believes lessons learned in Toulon will benefit the Warriors. “It’s going to be a huge test for us, but we have developed massively as a team and in the last few weeks. We have started to play a bit better so we’ll go out and do the things we do each week,” he added.