Iain Morrison takes a look at the outsiders who may yet force their way into the Scotland reckoning
THE opening salvoes of the seven-week war that is the annual Six Nations have already been fired with the announcement of several squads. On Tuesday afternoon it is Scotland’s turn to light the fuse as head coach Vern Cotter releases the names of the 33-odd individuals who will vie for the silverware. For reasons that are plum obvious, it will, for the most part, resemble his autumn collection which caught the eye.
Jacques Brunel, Italy’s French coach, announced a squad last week but only for the opening two matches and, with one eye on injured players drifting back into contention midway through the tournament, Cotter may do the something similar.
Oddly enough, with a World Cup just nine months hence, the Azzurri boss found room for four uncapped players in his thirty-man squad.
Former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry always tried to ensure that his players had 30 odd caps to their name by the time a World Cup came over the horizon but not all coaches enjoy the same riches as he did.
It might seem a little late in the World Cup cycle for Cotter to unearth too many “bolters” but Edinburgh’s scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne must have a chance of making his debut in the full national squad after earning a regular Edinburgh start. There is also the possibility of a couple of left-field calls because Cotter may want to run the rule over two recent imports from his own neck of the woods, although this dynamic duo may not be part of the official Scotland squad.
Flanker Hugh Blake has joined Edinburgh from Otago and he qualifies for Scotland thanks to the ubiquitous “Gretna Granny”. He had a run against the Scotland U20s squad last week in Glasgow colours and evidently impressed sufficiently to merit a closer look. He is big, rangy and physical.
While Scotland’s incumbent openside Blair Cowan is canny at the breakdown – he is third equal on the Aviva charts with ten turnovers to his name – he is not the most physical of sevens and doesn’t feature in the top 28 tacklers in England’s Premiership.
Chris Fusaro will miss the entire tournament so, if Cotter is looking to replace like for like with added beef, then Blake may get the nod.
The other Kiwi on the fringe of the squad is another recent Edinburgh import, stand-off Jade Te Rure, who joined the club on loan a month or so back. He benched against Connacht last weekend without getting on to the field and started amongst the subs last night in Lyon.
Also Scottish qualified, Te Rure helped Manawatu lift the (second tier) ITM Championship Cup last October and the local press seem to rate him: “With Aaron Cruden on All Blacks duty, Manawatu still have two quality first fives in Otere Black and Jade Te Rure; the envy of other unions,” enthused New Zealand newspaper Hawke’s Bay Today at the time.
Te Rure is pretty accurate off the tee but his running game is what makes him stand out from the crowd. Murrayfield’s buzzword at the moment, well one of them, is “point of difference” and Te Rure’s threat with the ball offers that much even if his game management is a work in progress. If he does play, the opposition certainly won’t know much about him because no one in Scotland does either.
Elsewhere, the news on the injury front is mostly encouraging and, having finally unearthed a backline that can do some damage, Cotter cannot afford to lose too many frontline players if the season is to be successful.
Matt Scott is an obvious add after missing the autumn Tests through injury. Stuart Hogg and Rob Harley are in a fitness race to make the flight to Paris but, even if they miss that one, they will almost certainly be good to go against Wales/Italy at the very latest. Cotter will doubtless confer with the sawbones before adding or subtracting them from his opening gambit.
Mark Bennett is even better placed after playing 30 minutes of that U20s match last week and he starts this afternoon’s European tie on the Glasgow bench.
Adam Ashe is perhaps a week or two behind Bennett but the assessment of Sacarens’ centre Duncan Taylor is less optimistic after he did a number on his hamstring in the loss to Gloucester last week.
Otherwise, the question will be which of the wide backs to leave out if Stuart Hogg is passed fit. The problem in the forwards is finding quality locks in the continued absence of Grant Gilchrist.
Jim Hamilton is starting for Saracens these days so he could come back into the picture and Ben Toolis has impressed everyone who has watched Edinburgh make strides in the last month or so. The Brisbane-born 22-year-old was a stand out in the 1872 derby matches.
But, if anything keeps Cotter awake in the middle of the night, it must be the ongoing search for a tighthead who can do a credible Atlas impersonation.
Euan Murray is currently injured but, whatever the state of his body, his soul decrees that he rest on the Sabbath which is when Scotland face Wales. Jon Welsh, who starts for Glasgow today, and Geoff Cross, who has done well of late for London Irish, are the obvious candidates but there isn’t a standout player demanding inclusion. If Zander Fagerson is included it will be for the experience rather than with any genuine intention of throwing the teenager into the Six Nations furnace.