COTTER’S ‘big squad’ is about to be revealed but some will have to work hard to earn a final berth writes Iain Morrison
One man who has already ruled himself out of contention is prop Euan Murray but, as if by magic, WP Nel qualifies for his adopted country just in the nick of time and has been earmarked to replace Murray. I wonder how Flower of Scotland sounds in Afrikaans? Geoff Cross is in pole position to back up Nel although the London Irish exile is far from a shoo-in.
It is not impossible that, with the quarter-final that Scotland are targeting falling on a Sunday, someone might have whispered to Murray – who refuses to play on the Sabbath for religious reasons – that he was a luxury the coaches couldn’t afford. On the opposite side of the scrum, Alasdair Dickinson is the leading contender, with a number of others – Ryan Grant, Gordon Reid, Alex Allan – hoping to join him.
Second row is one position where Cotter is picking from relative strength, or at least he will be if Grant Gilchrist and Richie Gray overcome injury problems and throw their hats into the ring as expected. If everyone is fit, it makes for an uncomfortable few months for the likes of Tim Swinson and Jim Hamilton, who may have to rely upon a favourable backs/forwards split if they are to make the final cut.
If Cotter selects 17 forwards and 14 backs that only leaves room for four locks (plus a big six/four like Rob Harley who can do a shift in the boiler house). It is difficult to imagine the Kiwi loading the dice any further in favour of the backs, so his only alternative is swing the other way and opt for 18/13, a split that would give him seven front-row forwards (including three hookers), four locks, six breakaways and still have room for one more big lump in the back five.
Cotter, pictured right,may feel better equipped to pick his squad if he boasted a medical degree rather than a coaching certificate. David Denton is giving the coach a selection headache in light of his latest concussion. The No.8 suffered a bad bang on the head when Edinburgh went down to Munster seven weeks ago and it is not clear that he has managed much, if any, contact work since then.
Cotter may feel better equipped to pick his squad if he boasted a medical degree
Another professional player retired last week due to concussion worries, the Newport Gwent Dragons’ Ashley Smith. Add to the mix the fact that Denton missed last summer’s tour with a similar head problem and suddenly the big Zimbabwean breakaway becomes something of a liability. If he got a another bang in the opening match against Japan then he’d be goosed for the remainder of the tournament.
Elsewhere in the back row, Bristol’s Mitch Eadie remains a potential “bolter”. The Bristol No.8 did his prospects no harm in last Wednesday’s second leg of the Championship play-off with some strong carries. Still, the gap from England’s Championship to the World Cup is a Grand Canyon-sized chasm and Eadie remains a long shot for the final 31.
In slightly better position is John Barclay, who is rumoured to be back in favour and so he should be after a hugely successful season with the Scarlets. He picked up the coaches’ Player of the Season award – it was not only unanimous but the flanker won it playing most of the campaign out of position at No.8.
For all his intelligence, Barclay doesn’t have the carrying heft required to play eight at international level, but he will challenge Blair Cowan for the No.7 shirt. Cowan is probably stronger over the ball than Barclay, who nevertheless is the better defender of the two. Cowan slips off a few too many tackles and in the big World Cup games – Samoa for the optimists, Japan for the pessimists – that can prove the difference between celebrations and commiserations.
I hope that Hugh Blake is in the big squad, if only as compensation for all the brickbats thrown his way. He qualifies to play for Scotland and, as such, his only crime was moving here and adding to the competition. He got almost no game time with Edinburgh, one start to be exact, but the Kiwi flanker deserves an opportunity to show what he can do in one of the warm-up games. Either he is a good player or he is an ordinary one – Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons and Cotter can’t both be right.
Cotter probably has a pretty good idea of who he wants in his inside and outside backs.There is one spot open for a scrum-half and one additional place for a stand-off, but the midfield hinges once again on the medical bulletins. Scotland’s three leading centres, Matt Scott (shoulder, again), Mark Bennett (shoulder) and Alex Dunbar (knee) are all fighting to be fit.
All three are said to be on, or slightly ahead of, schedule but that doesn’t take into consideration the mental scars following a major injury. Some players return to play like they were never away but for others it is a more tentative business, dipping one toe at a time into the Test match waters, and the World Cup is no place for tentative.
Should Cotter’s worst nightmare come true and all of them fail to recover, then players like Max Evans and Richie Vernon come into the coach’s reckoning. Should all of them be fit and healthy then Cotter will probably need just one more centre – Peter Horne and Greig Tonks both bring versatility, Sean Lamont never gives less than his best.
Four centres would leave the coach with five back players for the back three slots, with Tommy Seymour, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland (depending upon injury) the front runners and Dougie Fife, Tim Visser and Sean Lamont vying for the spare places.
With four warm-up matches scheduled, there will be opportunities for everyone to stake a claim.