SCOTLAND have hoped for the best but prepared for the worst since Finn Russell was given a two-week ban last week. Hoped that the Glasgow stand-off will be cleared on appeal and therefore free to play against Italy on Saturday, but prepared for that home game on the presumption that his suspension for reckless play in the defeat by Wales will stand.
Russell’s ban was dated from the day of the hearing, last Wednesday, so if it is reduced to a week or simply annulled he will be back in the No 10 jersey at BT Murrayfield in four days’ time. His game had its flaws against both the Welsh and the French, yet his attacking spirit and strength in defence have convinced Vern Cotter that he is a potential long-term possessor of the jersey.
But if the ban stays, what will the national coach do? He has four options, two of which look more plausible and practical than the others: select Peter Horne or Greig Tonks as straight replacements for Russell; move captain Greig Laidlaw from scrum-half; or bring Stuart Hogg up from full-back.
The selection of Horne, Russell’s Warriors team-mate, is logical on the grounds both of form and of simplicity. The 25-year-old steered Glasgow to victory from the stand-off berth against the Ospreys on Saturday, kicking the last points in their 19-16 win and claiming an individual tally of 14.
Such composure under pressure and accuracy with the boot will both be vital attributes as Scotland go in search of their first victory in this year’s Six Nations. Horne has been part of the squad already, and came on for Alex Dunbar at centre in the second half in Paris, so would not need any time to get up to speed with the game plan.
Tonks was named in place of Horne among the replacements to face Wales, but was the only one of the eight not to be called off the bench. His versatility has seen him used at full-back by Edinburgh, but he considers himself to be primarily a stand-off. Capped once, against Samoa in 2013, Tonks is the same age as Horne, and whatever happens this week will be in contention for a place in the squad for the World Cup.
It will be a close call between those two, and the fact that Tonks was not released back to Edinburgh might be seen as an indication that he is ahead in Cotter’s reckoning. But in either case, the selectors would be making a straight swap: Russell out, Horne or Tonks in, and no need to shuffle the rest of the back division.
Of course, if Cotter and his fellow-selectors decide that experience must be the overriding criterion, outweighing any disruption to the rest of the back line, Laidlaw, with 36 caps, will be preferred to both Tonks and Horne. While he has played at No 9 this season, the skipper has been a stand-off for much of his career, and if he moved to No 10 it would allow either Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, if fit, or Chris Cusiter to take over at scrum-half.
Hidalgo-Clyne has certainly done more than enough during his two outings off the bench to suggest that he is ready to play a greater part in the team, although Laidlaw’s status as captain makes it likely that in normal circumstances the younger man would have to wait until later in the season to be awarded his first start in a Test match.
In any case, Hidalgo-Clyne is currently being assessed under the concussion protocol following a knock he sustained against Wales.
Even if he is deemed to be symptom-free on time, there is the question of how much training he may have missed while sidelined. If Hidalgo-Clyne does not make it, Chris Cusiter could play at No 9, having been called up to the squad yesterday – and a half-back pairing of Cusiter and Laidlaw would be guaranteed to offer a lot of rugby wisdom.
But Cusiter himself reckons that, no matter how often Laidlaw has played at stand-off in the past, to ask him to revert to that position now, in such a high-pressure match, would be a tall order. “It would be tough for him to make that move, as he hasn’t played there for a long time,” the Sale scrum-half said yesterday.
“By playing Six Nations games back to back you get into the groove a little bit and become more comfortable with it. That [move to ten] would be tough going.
“He is very familiar with the systems and game plan, so he’s ahead of a guy coming in who has not seen anything. He’s played for Scotland at ten before, so it’s not an impossibility – but it’s not ideal. You want guys playing in that position who are playing there week in, week out and who are doing the job for their clubs and have that experience.
“I don’t know their [the selectors’] plans, and if he gets named at ten he gets named at ten, but you want guys playing regularly in that position.”
The same argument would be all the more applicable in the case of Hogg, whose interventions into the line from full-back have become an increasingly important part of Scotland’s attacking plans. The Glasgow back can play at ten all right – he did so for the Lions in a midweek game on the 2013 tour – but in a tightly structured match his lack of familiarity with the position could prove costly.
In addition, moving Hogg from 15 would necessitate a reshuffle in the back three. It is simpler and safer, then, to select Horne or Tonks, and it will be a major surprise if, when the team is announced on Thursday, we find out that Cotter has opted for something different.
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