THE strength in depth of Scottish rugby is reflected in the Scotland A team named to face England Saxons at Newcastle tomorrow night.
Scotland turned the tables on the Auld Enemy with an historic result at this level last season, claiming a record 35-0 win against a strong Saxons team at Netherdale. Ten of that home squad went on to win full caps for Scotland, underlining the platform which the A game can provide.
But Scotland have never won an A fixture south of the border and did not face England in the old days of B internationals.
For Shade Munro, the Glasgow forwards coach who has been handed the reins of the A side, assisted by another former Test lock in Scott Murray, this is a great opportunity at the start of the RBS Six Nations Championship for some players to turn up the heat on those selected for Twickenham duty.
Munro said: “There are guys who have played for the international team and the A team before, and it is a cliche, but this is a chance for these guys to show what they can do. The selectors will be watching, it’s live on Sky TV and, if they perform well, they have every opportunity to play in the Six Nations. We have only one A game but, if you’re going to have it, the best one to have is against England.
“They are a strong A side and it’s right at the beginning of the Six Nations, so these guys are very focused on performing well as a team and, hopefully, that it will aid their progress further down the line.”
The SRU have managed to arrange only one A team fixture due to cost and the reluctance of other unions. So there remain far too few chances for Scottish players to step up and test themselves at a higher level.
Many of the A squad could feature for the senior team soon, and the net has been widened with the inclusion of two new faces. Saracens wing/centre Duncan Taylor, a former Davidsons Mains Primary pupil, will start on the right wing after Glasgow’s Tommy Seymour went down with an injury. Duncan Weir has been called up to the full squad for Twickenham, replacing the injured Peter Horne so London Scottish scrum-half Jamie Stevenson has been promoted to the bench. Nikki Walker is back on the left wing with Greig Tonks handed the No 15 jersey and Alex Grove and Alex Dunbar forming a powerful midfield combination.
Tom Heathcote and Sean Kennedy, a pair very much in the sights of interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson, are the starting half-backs, with substitute Stevenson, a 6ft 1in former hooker and back row, making the jump from the Scotland under-20s to the A squad after a hat-trick of tries helped London Scottish demolish Gala in the British and Irish Cup.
The pack also has a strong appearance with 24-times capped loosehead Alasdair Dickinson joined by Edinburgh’s under-rated hooker Steven Lawrie, and returning prop Jon Welsh. The Glasgow duo Tom Ryder and Tim Swinson lock the second row and Stuart McInally and Richie Vernon play six and seven beside skipper Ryan Wilson in a back row within touching distance of the full Test side.
Wilson came off the bench in last year’s win, albeit pressed into second row action, and is hopeful that the team can emulate that achievement just over the border in Newcastle.
“We did really well to take the game to them and attack them,” he said. “It was a freezing night at Galashiels and I don’t think they were too keen. It was a really good crowd and the boys got stuck and went for it, and as the score shows we did very well.
“We’re approaching this game as we did that one. It’s another game, different players, different teams and different venue and they maybe have the upper hand because they had a game last week to get their stuff together [the Saxons beat Irish Wolfhounds 14-10], but the way our training has gone this week has been fantastic.
“I said to the boys last night that looking through the training clips we look like a team that’s been together all season. The stuff we’re running through is pretty fluent, so we have a chance.
“It is a one-off game for Scotland A and a lot of boys will have their sights set on pushing to the national team but, first and foremost, the priority is getting a win on Friday night.”
v England Saxons at Kingston Park, tomorrow, kick-off 8pm
15 Greig Tonks (Edinburgh)
14 Duncan Taylor (Saracens)
13 Alex Grove (Worcester)
12 Alex Dunbar (Glasgow)
11 Nikki Walker (Worcester)
10 Tom Heathcote (Bath)
9 Sean Kennedy (Glasgow)
1 Alasdair Dickinson (Sale)
2 Steven Lawrie (Edinburgh)
3 Jon Welsh (Glasgow)
4 Tom Ryder (Glasgow)
5 Tim Swinson (Glasgow)
6 Stuart McInally (Edinburgh)
7 Richie Vernon (Sale)
8 Ryan Wilson (Glasgow) capt
A Walker (Edinburgh), G Shiells (Newcastle), G Reid (Glasgow), R McAlpine (Edinburgh), J Eddie (Glasgow), J Stevenson (London Scottish), B Cairns (Edinburgh), D Fife (Edinburgh)