It is difficult to recall the words “embarrassment” and “riches” being heard in close proximity around Scottish rugby in recent years. But the burgeoning batch of young talented centres coming through of late has the potential to be a rich seam for head coach Vern Cotter to mine.
Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar and Peter Horne make up a gifted quartet whose talents could illuminate the Scots game for years.
However, in the world of top-level professional sport, the distance from feast to famine can be a short one and injuries are threatening to deny Cotter his midfield talent.
The 2016 RBS Six Nations launch took place at its now traditional home yesterday – the plush surrounds of the private members’ Hurlingham Club in well-heeled Fulham where the answer to the question ‘anyone for croquet?’ is, even in the dark depths of January, always seemingly a resounding ‘yah’.
It was Cotter’s second experience of the exhaustive round of press calls which herald the start of, if not Test rugby’s “greatest” championship as the tournament has branded itself despite the southern hemisphere domination of last year’s World Cup, then certainly the one richest in tradition and riveting rivalries.
Scotland have a wooden spoon whitewash to make amends for this year and the most pressing concern for their Kiwi coach ahead of next Saturday’s Calcutta Cup opener is the injury doubts over his Glasgow Warriors midfield trio of Bennett (shoulder), Horne (foot) and Dunbar (thigh strain).
Cotter revealed yesterday that the latter two are unlikely to be fit in time for England’s visit to BT Murrayfield and Bennett is only a maybe, which could leave him with only two specialist centres to call upon in the shape of Edinburgh’s Matt Scott and Saracens’ Duncan Taylor.
“We will have a closer look at things on Monday,” said Cotter. “Mark Bennett may be able to play and we will see if his training can bring him back onto the paddock on Monday and he could make himself available for the game.
“Alex Dunbar and Peter Horne look unlikely to make the paddock.
“We’ve still got Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor. Fingers crossed Mark Bennett should come through, other than that there are other possibilities we can look at – we know that Sean Lamont can play centre. But first of all we need to get to Monday and a clear assessment of players and what the possibilities could be for the game.”
If Bennett doesn’t make it then Lamont covering Scott and Taylor from the bench would seem a more likely scenario than a dramatic shift such as playing Finn Russell at 12, outside Duncan Weir, as he did for Glasgow recently.
While Eddie Jones was up to his old tricks suggesting Scotland, who have only beaten England three times since the 1990 Grand Slam, were favourites for the opening match, the fact is that it is difficult to predict what the men in white will bring to Edinburgh next weekend.
“There are certain things we know we are going to get,” argued Cotter. “Highly motivated players and, as we have seen, a nation with five teams in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. I would think England rugby has mobilised itself and is motivated to do well in the Six Nations too to show they are better than their results in the World Cup showed.”
Greig Laidlaw was also in London yesterday and helped start proceedings on stage with his five fellow skippers, including hooker Dylan Hartley, who Jones has trusted with the England captaincy despite a series of disciplinary issues. There was an unexpectedly prickly moment in the normally convivial and back-slappy opening exchanges when BBC commentator and host Andrew Cotter asked if Hartley was planning to “lead by example”.
“Oh so the other guys get to talk about their teams but with me it has to be about me?” bristled the New Zealand-born forward.
As for Laidlaw, he later spoke of how Scotland had put the heartache of that 35-34 World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia behind them, taken the positive aspects from it and are now looking only towards a future they hope can be a bright one.
“We are not struggling to get over the World Cup,” he insisted. “We’ll never get it back. You could forever be disappointed but that would forever hinder you. We debriefed the Australia game and we had a look at it. There were areas where we put them under massive pressure but there were opportunities that would have taken the game away from Australia so these are the small margins we have to find going into the Six Nations.
“Internally this is the most excited as a player group that we have been in my time involved. When we met back up this week it was a case that we had a couple of meetings but we just wanted to get out on the training pitch and get better. “
Laidlaw said that the misery of last season’s Wooden Spoon is acting as both a personal and collective spur.
“It’s a massive motivation,” said the scrum-half. “As players we don’t want to be finishing up bottom of the pile and that’s what happened last time around. We understand how tough it’s going to be but ultimately when we cross the white line we as players need to come up with better performances this time. We felt as though we made gains from the Six Nations into the World Cup and we need to push on again to make sure we can put ourselves in that position to win games in this tournament.”