Scotland backs coach Jason O’Halloran took to the training pitch for the first time in his new job yesterday and, if the fact that he only had one centre fit to train was a concern, he wasn’t letting it show.
The Kiwi, who has been brought in by compatriot Vern Cotter and arrived in Scotland from Manawatu in November, gave off an unruffled air despite the fact that injury clouds hang over the Glasgow midfield trio of Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Peter Horne less than a fortnight out from the Six Nations opener against England at Murrayfield a week on Saturday.
A Scotland team statement yesterday said that Dunbar had “sustained a mild posterior thigh strain” in Glasgow’s 22-5 win over Racing 92 at the weekend “and will require ongoing assessment and treatment”.
Bennett was said to be making “good progress” on the shoulder injury he sustained against Racing 92 in Paris earlier this month, but the Warriors centre is clearly in a race against time to be fit for the Calcutta Cup showdown.
O’Halloran went on to reveal that Horne’s recovery was “on the backburner” after suffering a recurrence of his foot problem.
With Saracens’ Duncan Taylor sitting out yesterday with a dead leg he picked up in his club’s weekend win at Toulouse, that left only Matt Scott of Edinburgh in the specialist centre department able to train fully at the St Andrews base.
Edinburgh flanker Hamish Watson and Glasgow prop Alex Allan were also drafted in temporarily to boost training numbers with a few nursing bumps from the weekend action.
“It means we have to do a lot of work off your feet, so that they are clear to what the structure is and they’re very clear what their roles are,” said O’Halloran at the Old Course Hotel yesterday of his centre predicament.
“Mark Bennett’s been in great form and we’re very confident he’ll be right hopefully, Matt Scott’s been in good form and Duncan Taylor’s been outstanding for Saracens and has a bit of knowledge of the England set-up.
“I think out of the group we have we’ll have two really good centres and a back-up on the bench as well.”
Asked if there was any likelihood of Bennett playing for his club this weekend and, if not, he would be risked straight in against England if fit by then, O’Halloran replied: “We’ll take advice from the medical people and that’ll pan out this or next week. At the moment they’re pretty confident Mark should be alright for England. There will be communication between Vern and Glasgow to see if Mark is to play [this weekend] or not to play depending on what we get back from the medics. That’ll pan out the next 48 hours or so.
“I think we take medical advice first and foremost. They go to Uni for five years to get those degrees and if they say he’s fit to play against England but can’t play for Glasgow this week then I’d be fine with it because Mark’s played a lot of rugby and been in good form off the back of a good World Cup.”
O’Halloran is a former centre himself, playing 54 times for Wellington Hurricanes and one cap for the All Blacks when he had 12 minutes off the bench in Italy – “I’m a one-Test wonder like a lot of them out there,” he quipped.
The 43-year-old was highly regarded in New Zealand for the job he did with Manawatu, where his assistant was Cotter’s brother Jeremy, and he previously had coaching experience in Japan with the Kubota Spears, where he once crossed swords with new England coach Eddie Jones when he was in charge at Suntory – “one-nil to Eddie but he had better cattle than me,” said O’Halloran with a smile.
He is looking forward to working with Cotter and said the chance to adapt his abilities to the northern hemisphere was a challenge he relished.
“Vern and I haven’t had a massive amount to do with each other although I coached with his brother for two years. Vern’s a bloody good man, really honest and that’s all I can ask for as a coach,” he said. “I think I know how to organise an attack against an up and out defence which is what you get in New Zealand a lot. Being challenged to have more thorough kicking strategy, which is key in the northern hemisphere, also attracted me.”