IF Edinburgh supporters are bemoaning their club’s drop in representation in interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson’s RBS Six Nations squad, Sale duo Richie Gray and Richie Vernon are counting their blessings.
Gray may have been a shoo-in on past form but Vernon has been handed a new opportunity to shine after falling off previous coach Andy Robinson’s radar. It was only a 35-man squad training which met up in Glasgow on Monday and Tuesday, and the cut will come this weekend, but, as his team sits bottom of the Aviva Premiership and out of Europe, Vernon was one of several players overjoyed to be involved ahead of Scotland’s opening game against England at Twickenham on 2 February.
“It has been great to be back and training with the guys up here again,” he said. “It’s been a tough year down at Sale, but I’ve been playing well recently and so I’m delighted to be selected and be here.
“I was worried that the way things have gone with Sale would count against me. You know, it’s a lot easier to pick guys from winning teams, and it’s easier to play well in teams that are going well.
“I wasn’t involved in the autumn squad and I thought I might not be again, but it’s a big squad with quite a few new faces and we’ve all been trying to impress Scott Johnson, [forwards coach] Dean Ryan and [skills coach] Stevie Scott in training.
“I didn’t know Dean Ryan before meeting him on Sunday, and it was a bit strange after being used to him analysing games on TV but he’s been good.He said that he doesn’t want to change too much of what we’re doing, but pointed out that we’ve got pretty much ten training sessions to get everything in place. So it’s about small building blocks.
“He’s explained things very well, making sure we’re clear on our roles and know our roles in the gameplan and it’s been a good start. The coaches know what they want us to do – they have the gameplan worked out – and now it’s about getting us to buy into it, which won’t be difficult, and then drill it and drill it, and be sure of what we’re doing when it comes to Twickenham.”
Vernon enjoyed linking up with old Glasgow colleague and flatmate Johnnie Beattie, another player handed a recall as Johnson shows himself to be a different thinker to Robinson.
Vernon won the first of his 15 caps so far as a replacement for Beattie in 2009 and his last one came with Beattie out of the equation, against Samoa on last summer’s tour. Vernon is keen to renew the rivalry but acknowledges that the No 7 jersey may just present a new opportunity for a 25-year-old forward quicker across the turf than many backs.
He said: “It’s great to have Johnnie back. We had that time at Glasgow, competing against each other and becoming very good friends off the park as well, and it’s great to see him playing well again. I look at him as a friend you want to do well, as well as a rival, maybe more than a rival, actually. This season we played against him at Montpellier and, having done analysis for that game, you could see that he was on top form. Hopefully, we can see him back in that form for Scotland we saw three years ago, but, it would be nice if we could both fit in!
“Seven [openside flanker] could be an option. Right now I just need to keep my head down and work hard and see what coaches think but I’d love the chance to play again. My last ten games at Glasgow were at seven, and I’ve played there this season with Sale so I’m very comfortable there. I’ve not started there with Scotland, but it’s a position I quite like.”
At 6ft 6in and over 16 stones, Vernon is a big lad, the antithesis of the old-fashioned openside and, while England have followed the trend of shifting big men across the scrum, their seven, skipper Chris Robshaw, is only 6ft 2in. But, with Johnson having only selected one genuine openside in his squad, in uncapped Glasgow flanker Chris Fusaro, the coaches seem certain to opt for three big men.
Kelly Brown could play openside, with Johnnie Beattie, David Denton or Vernon at No 8 and Alasdair Strokosch or Denton at blindside. But, if Vernon can get down to the gritty ground chores, he might offer more pace with Beattie at No 8 and Brown at six. There are numerous possible permutations and that is before injuries come into the equation.
Strokosch was excused camp this week as he awaits the birth of a child, while Denton, Beattie and Fusaro are nursing knocks from weekend matches. All are currently expected to be available for Twickenham in ten days’ time but there are no guarantees they will be clear by Tuesday’s team announcement.
Vernon added: “In every Scotland squad I’ve been in we have huge competition in the back row and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. There are some quality boys coming through and, to be honest, that just makes it more exciting because it means you have to be performing really well to have a chance and, whoever is picked it is likely to be on form, so it gives us a chance of doing something.”
The amiable Dundonian added: “It’s going to be interesting. There may be a few changes to what has gone before. England away first-up is going to be a huge challenge so we have to get things nailed down quickly and be sure of what we’re doing.It’s good for me being down in England and familiar with what makes players tick here, and maybe knowing more about the players we’ll be up against thanI used to.”