Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s Japan tour selection dilemma

Vern Cotter will have to choose which back rows to leave behind.  Picture: David Rogers/Getty
Vern Cotter will have to choose which back rows to leave behind. Picture: David Rogers/Getty
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Scottish Rugby will announce not one but two national squads tomorrow – two for the price of one, or BOGOF as it’s known in the retail trade, writes Iain Morrison. The full Scotland squad has a two-Test series in Japan while the U20s squad are headed for the somewhat less exotic surrounds of Manchester for the annual World Championships.

The national squad is likely to number just shy of 30 players although a few places could be left blank until the Pro12 post season has played out and one or two niggling injuries have been given a chance to heal. Grant Gilchrist may be close to making the cut but given his recent luck you fancy he’ll do himself a mischief boarding the plane.

Despite the limited numbers there will still be at least six front row forwards, but more likely eight in all, with a seventh prop and a third hooker to cover potential injuries.

The full squad is unlikely to dip into the pool of U20 players, who will go to the World Championships with a spring in their step after a competitive Six Nations despite having to do without several of their best players. Edinburgh Rugby withheld Jamie Ritchie and Blair Kinghorn after the pair had helped Scotland record a first victory over England at that age group. While both have been regulars for their respective pro-teams, neither is likely to make the step up to the full squad just yet.

Zander Fagerson already has done, capped off the bench against England in February, although he, too, is more likely headed for Manchester than the Far East. He was replaced in the Six Nations by Exeter’s Moray Low who has undoubtedly benefited from two seasons with the Chiefs.

While Scotland beat Japan 45-10 in the World Cup it was the hardest-earned 45-10 victory in the history of the game; the Scots forced to defend for long stretches, making 71 more tackles than the Cherry Blossoms over the 80 minutes. For all of Japan’s huge improvement under Eddie Jones, the tartan-clad fans will expect a win and Vern Cotter can’t afford a hiccup at this early stage of Scotland’s rehabilitation. The coach’s selection headaches appear in the back row of the scrum and the back three.

The Edinburgh front row will surely travel with Stuart McInally or Fraser Brown pressing hard for Ross Ford’s starting shirt. Alasdair Dickinson has no such worries at loosehead but who sits behind him on the bench is probably between Gordon Reid and Rory Sutherland, though it’s not impossible that Cotter will take both.

The halfbacks should be the easy ones, Greig Laidlaw, Henry Pyrgos, Finn Russell and Duncan Weir or Peter Horne, who obviously doubles up at 12. The two leading centres pick themselves, Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, although both are involved in the post-season games. If Horne goes then Mark Bennett and Matt Scott vie for what is probably one spot.

The back three pick themselves. The back-up is less obvious although Sean Maitland, who was linked with a move to Saracens last week, should travel as he covers both wing and full-back. His place in the starting line-up was usurped by Tim Visser but thereafter no-one is a shoo-in. Sean Lamont is not exactly looking to the future and while Damian Hoyland has scored an admirable eight tries in 16 league appearances for Edinburgh this season (before yesterday’s match) his defence is a little too flaky to warrant inclusion. Rory Hughes is an option although his Glasgow teammate Lee Jones is a far better player now when he won his four caps in 2012.

In the back row it is not so much a matter of who Cotter takes but who he doesn’t. John Hardie would go on merit but the Kiwi flanker could do with a prolonged rest this summer after playing back-to-back seasons and a gruelling World Cup.

That still leaves Cotter with openside options, John Barclay and Blair Cowan, number eights David Denton and Josh Strauss, and blindsides Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley. The latter has surely crept into the coach’s mind of late (Cornell du Preez is not yet qualified).

The Glasgow flanker can cover lock and his ability to slow the opposition ball at the breakdown will be needed to counter Japan’s quick-step style that had Scotland reeling in Gloucester, if only for the first 50 minutes.