IT CASTS a long shadow, the Rugby World Cup. It is the prism through which all top-level Test match rugby will be viewed this season and Thursday marks exactly one year until it takes place. Tickets went on sale last week, with £715 the asking price for the final should your behind demand the best seats Twickenham has to offer.
It’s big business now, with the 2015 world cup taking place in the game’s financial heartland of Europe and expected to raise significantly more than New Zealand managed in 2011, with the International Rugby Board demanding a hefty £80 million from the host. Interest is genuinely global these days, with countries as diverse as Greenland and Pakistan taking the television feed. Fans will not be segregated, thank goodness, as was rumoured a few months back.
There is a neat symmetry to Scotland’s World Cup record, finishing at the quarter-final stage every time bar twice. Once in 1991, when the guts of the Grand Slam team reached the semi-finals only to lose to England thanks to Rob Andrew’s penalty and again, last time out in New Zealand, when the team lost a thriller to England which sent them home after the group stages for the first time ever.
Scotland’s new coach, Vern Cotter, will hope to go one better against South Africa, Samoa, Japan and the USA but the Kiwi has had one year instead of two to work his magic after Clermont made him honour his contract. Time is against him and Cotter has some tough decisions to make between now and 23 September, 2015, when Scotland play Japan at Kingsholm, Gloucester.
1 The half-backs
If Cotter wakes in the middle of the night covered in a cold, clammy sweat it is because he endured another half-back nightmare. Scrum-half has long been a source of strength for Scotland but, with Mike Blair having retired from international rugby and Rory Lawson having hung up his boots on medical advice, the options are limited.
Sale’s Chris Cusiter is much the better man with the ball in hand, a threat round the base of the breakdown, especially on the kind of dry track we should get next September/October in England. But if the heavens open then Gloucester’s Greig Laidlaw, pictured below, offers the more tactically astute option, much the better kicker from hand and almost priceless off the tee, or so you’d think. Over the course of the RaboDirect Pro12 last season Laidlaw was not Scotland’s best marksman. That accolade went to Glasgow’s Finn Russell, albeit by a short nose.
Alternatively, Cotter could opt for another Warrior, Henry Pyrgos, who offers elements of both the above. More tactically aware than Cusiter, more mobile and threatening that Laidlaw and another vocal leader. The Glasgow nine has a big season ahead of him.
The No.10 jersey has been Scotland’s Achilles heel for over a decade but Russell can fill the shirt if he continues the progress he made last season. Though, should he play like he did against Canada in the summer, the youngster will find himself back at Falkirk Rugby Club... on the bench.
Edinburgh’s Greig Tonks looks like the man to back him up but neither has much experience of playing Test rugby at ten – exactly two matches between them so far, which is less than ideal. Tonks’ Murrayfield team-mate Tom Heathcote and even Glasgow’s Peter Horne may yet have a part to play as 10/12 options. Cotter will first decide what style he wants and then pick the half-backs best suited to deliver it.
England are heading to Denver and Vail to train at altitude. Wales are to forego their cryogenic chamber in Poland and instead they are visiting the Swiss Alps and the Qatar desert to train at high altitude and at high temperature. What are Scotland going to do to ensure they arrive at next year’s world cup in peak physical and metal condition?
Not since Frank Hadden had his side eat like Desperate Dan and train like Mo Farah ahead of the world cup in 2007 in France has the Scotland squad looked in really good shape for the big one. There is fit and there is World Cup fit and Scotland have been also-rans in this department for some time. They haven’t been bad, they just haven’t been exceptionally good and it is going to be an exceptionally well-conditioned squad that lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy next autumn. This is something where pure hard work and a little imagination go a long way. Surely Scotland can manage both of those things?
3 Integrate the project players
Presuming that both WP Nel, pictured, and Josh Strauss make the cut, Cotter will have next to no time to integrate the two South Africans into the Scotland set-up. Nel qualifies in July, 2015, in time for the August warm-up matches, but Strauss does not qualify until after the World Cup officially starts so he won’t pull on the blue shirt ahead of the world cup unless one warm-up is classified as a “friendly” or some such? The SRU are peering at the small print even now.
Neither man will have spent much time in the Scotland camp. Nel will be an unknown quantity to all but the Edinburgh crew, Strauss will remain an enigma to anyone not sporting Glasgow colours. Both could bring some much-needed muscle to Scotland’s cause and the Kiwi Cotter has to somehow integrate them into the Scotland squad before they play the country of their birth. Fingers crossed they sing the right national anthem.
4 Pick a captain and stick with him
There are numerous candidates from Greig Laidlaw to Kelly Brown via Grant Gilchrist, who did the job last time out, but it’s not obvious that any of the above will be automatic selections for the team when the world cup arrives.
Those players who are probable starters all have issues that need to be addressed. Ryan Grant is awaiting trial for an alleged assault. Centre duo Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott are both a little too quiet. Josh Strauss will only qualify days before the Japan game, and anyway he is South African. Stuart Hogg has shown his rash side on the field. Cotter has a conundrum on his hands all right.
5 Find Scotland’s speciality
Ever since the authorities did away with rucking (and quite right too) Scotland have been stripped of their unique selling point, the thing that separated them from the rest of the rugby world, the aspect that pretty much defined several generations of Scottish players. What will replace it? Wales have their superb fitness and their blitz defence courtesy of Shaun Edwards. England have the strength of their pack, the best rugby league convert the country has to offer in Sam Burgess and a formidable brains trust. Los Pumas have their “Bajada” set scrum and Australia have individual excellence in Israel Folau and Matt Hooper. Ireland have the choke tackle and Jonny Sexton. The Springboks have muscle and, if that doesn’t work, they have even more muscle. What about Scotland?
It’s time Scotland found a style of rugby to call their own because, without something unique to point at with , there will be failure and recriminations and all the other baggage that comes through the door hot on the heels of defeat.