No.8-turned-centre Vernon tells David Barnes of his determination to earn a place in World Cup squad
WORLD CUP warm-up matches are notoriously lifeless affairs, with the fear of injury and the inherent dangers of showing the opposition too much of your hand too early generally outweighing the competitive instincts which make full-blooded internationals such compelling spectacles.
It is a massive step up and to be involved in it again would be brilliant for me
But that won’t be the case during Scotland’s pre-tournament outings during the coming month says Richie Vernon, who believes that selection for the big event is so up in the air that every player will have to be firing on all cylinders when they get their chance.
Scotland have four games on the bounce, starting with Ireland in Dublin in a fortnight’s time, followed by two encounters with Italy, first in Turin then at Murrayfield.
The final warm-up match against France in Paris on 5 September may have a slightly different complexion given that it will be played after Vern Cotter names his 31-man squad to compete for the Webb Ellis Cup in England during September and October – but there is still the small matter of ensuring your position as a frontline player to keep motivation levels high.
“The coaches want the competition to be there and be strong right through this preparation period, and guys have really taken that on, and are trying to impress,” said the 28-year-old Glasgow Warriors star.
“It’s impossible to predict what’s going on in the coaches’ minds sometimes, so all you can do is go out and do the best you can in training and, when you get the opportunity in games, play as best you can,” he added.
“It’s almost a treat, it’s certainly a relief, to get to the games stage. It has been a really tough training period but it flies by and things are going to pick up a step now and everyone can’t wait to get into these games.
“We’ve been given no guarantees but we’re hoping they’ll rotate the squad and we’ll all get the chance to show what we can do.”
Vernon has 20 Scotland caps to his name and was a member of the Scotland squad which competed at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand (featuring in the games against Romania, Argentina and England), but he has not featured for his country since making the switch from back-rower to centre in December 2013.
In fact, he has not played for Scotland since 18 months before that bold move, having picked up his last cap against Samoa during the summer of 2012 – so, while Vernon knows what it feels like to perform at the highest level, he is to all intents and purposes one of the new boys in Cotter’s squad.
“When I was playing in the back-row, there might sometimes have been a passing comment that ‘you could have played in the backs’, but if someone had told me four years ago that this was where I’d be now there’s no chance I’d have believed them,” he reflected.
“First impressions are important and this was my first time back involved in the national squad, so every training session we do is important because that’s where the coaches start to form an opinion on what you can do and can’t do, what you’re good at and need to improve on.”
“And if everyone has that approach, going at it 100 per cent, then it’s going to be great for competition.”
When Vernon first made the switch to centre, he was urged by SRU director of rugby Scott Johnson and Glasgow Warriors coach Gregor Townsend to target selection for this World Cup – but that seemed like a long shot given the calibre of the players he was going up against.
That he has emerged as a genuine contender to make the final cut is testament to the work he has put in, but can also be linked to a fair dollop of good luck – with the three men who started last season at the top of the pecking order each picking up long-term injuries in recent months.
Alex Dunbar (knee), Mark Bennett (shoulder) and Matt Scott (shoulder) are all closing in on full fitness, but Vernon has the momentum of a swashbuckling end-of-season run with Glasgow Warriors to support his claim for inclusion.
“If I’m being honest about it, coming into the squad I was definitely behind a few other guys. I would say I’d have been an outside shot,” he conceded.
“Alex has been on brilliant form for the last couple of years, while Mark and Matt, who haven’t played as much over the past year, have been the guys that have been playing for Scotland and doing really well. So they will start ahead because the coaches know what they can do and they’ve been doing it for a couple of years.
“But, with the opportunities some of us other guys will get, you never know. Form is a huge thing and you can play yourself into squads like this. There are always a couple of surprises.
“We all offer something different. I know that carrying ball and getting the team over the gain-line is something I’m comfortable doing. It’s something I’ve done a lot for my clubs and Scotland as a No.8 through the years, and when I did change position that was the part of the game at centre that came most naturally to me.
“So that’s definitely something I will be trying to do as well as I possibly can to show the coaching staff that it’s something that can be very useful to the team.
“The last World Cup was such a great experience to be part of but it was probably the greatest disappointment of my career as well with the way it ended up. A couple of points in a couple of games and we could have topped that group and gone through to a big quarter-final.
“You hear at times like this that every team works hard and every team improves for the next World Cup, but having been there before I’d say that is absolutely true. Every team does get better, every team is well drilled going into it, and is in the best shape they can possibly be.
“So it is a massive step up and to be involved in it again would be brilliant for me. It would be a chance to put that  right.”