THE good news for Josh Strauss and Willem Nel is that, barring injuries, they will surely achieve their ambition of playing international rugby and doing so in the World Cup. The good news for the international game itself is that they may be among the last players to qualify to do so on only three years of residence in a country for which they are not otherwise qualified.
The International Board is reviewing the qualification criteria, and should decide that three years is too short a time to make a South African a Scot and such like. For my part, I hope they also decide that a single grandparent is not enough to qualify someone to play for a country in which he wasn’t born.
Of course Scotland, like every other country, makes the best use possible of the regulations relating to qualification, and we will be happy to see Strauss and Nel in a Scotland jersey, the two New Zealand recruits John Hardie and Hugh Blake likewise. Plenty of incomers have done very well for Scotland and become popular figures. Nevertheless, it will still jar with some if Strauss and Nel are in the Scotland team against South Africa, when they will be playing against the country of their birth, which till three years ago they must have hoped to represent.
Vern Cotter’s selection for today’s match in Turin is evidently the next step in a weeding-out process. Only seven or eight of the starting XV can be sure of finding a place in his 31-man World Cup squad. Moreover, it’s not till the return match at Murrayfield – sorry, BT Murrayfield – that we are likely to see something like his first-choice team in action. One assumes that as many of that XV who are deemed fit will play then. Even if, as is likely, Sean Maitland, Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar are not yet ready to return to the fray, it’s significant that Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw and Jonny Gray haven’t been included in either of the first two warm-up games.
Today’s match may be primarily a warm-up, but I would reckon that this time the result is every bit as important as the performance. For one thing, registering a seventh consecutive defeat would be somewhat demoralising. We are already ranked as low as 12 in the world; so Cotter’s teams really have to start winning – for their own peace of mind and morale as much as anything.
Italy have some good backs now and have been playing a more expansive game. Nevertheless their strength still lies up front and their most effective attacking weapon remains the driving or rolling maul. We learned that to our cost in last season’s Six Nations.
Defending a well-organised maul legally is very difficult, but quite a few teams seem to manage it better than Scotland. We conceded another try from a maul in Dublin last week when Sean Cronin went over the line rather too easily. Unless you try the ploy of not engaging, so that no maul is formed – a ploy that requires you to trust the referee – you have to disrupt it and knock it back before it has properly formed, and do this so vigorously that it doesn’t have time to re-group. This is much easier said than done.
What is certain is that we concede too many tries to the maul. Of course, teams have few opportunities to maul close to your line if you don’t concede penalties which can be kicked into touch near the five-metre mark. Last week in Dublin we gave away a string of penalties in the first half-hour, one reason why we took so long to get into the match.
Elsewhere there’s a fascinating return France-England match in Paris. Last week the English backs outshone the French ones while the French forwards mostly had the upper hand. It used often to be the other way round. One has the impression that Stuart Lancaster probably has a clearer idea of his best side than Philippe St-André has of his. But there’s nothing new about that. That wayward genius, Freddie Michalak, a veteran of the 2003 World Cup, makes yet another comeback. His opposite number, George Ford, was still at primary school when Michalak was first capped. Michalak must have made as many “last appearances” as Frank Sinatra or the Rolling Stones.
France are still missing their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, the man who all but drove them to what would have been a deserved victory in the final of the last World Cup in New Zealand. France that day were arguably the victim of some rather timid refereeing.
The French have been in the doldrums for a few years now, but I would still reckon that they have as good a chance as any of the Six Nations of lifting the trophy. They’ve beaten the All Blacks in the last two World Cups staged in the northern hemisphere.