Scotland coach Vern Cotter talked up his young props yesterday and exuded faith in their abilities but didn’t shy away from the fact that uncapped loosehead Allan Dell and tighthead Zander Fagerson, who will be winning his second cap, face a tough examination tomorrow.
Cotter’s suggestion that Australia can be “right on the legal limit of what you’re allowed to do” at scrum time could be interpreted as a heavy hint to referee John Lacey and he said he was expecting a fierce set-piece confrontation.
The two props will have 100 caps of experience to literally lean on in the shape of hooker Ross Ford as the autumn Test series gets under way at BT Murrayfield and Cotter was keen to refute suggestions that the Aussie pack has regressed since last year’s World Cup, when they memorably beat Scotland in the last eight en route to a runners-up finish.
“They’ve moved on a lot since [the World Cup], and during the Rugby Championship. They’ve improved, they’ve put 30 points on Wales, so we know they’re coming here with a lot of confidence,” said the Kiwi.
“They like to see themselves as an open, running team, but we expect a set-piece battle before anything. With the weather perhaps closing in a little bit, this gives them the opportunity to go to a more forward-orientated Northern Hemisphere type of game.”
Dell, the 24-year-old South Africa-born Edinburgh loosehead, gets the nod over Glasgow’s Gordon Reid and, with 20-year-old Fagerson, will flank centurion Ford in a front row which is missing first-choice props Alasdair Dickinson and WP Nel to injury.
“Allan came in [to camp] 100 per cent, Gordy wasn’t,” explained Cotter at the Oriam performance centre after naming his team. “Gordy felt something down his arm. He’s fully recovered now and, with his experience, takes his place on the bench. We were able to train with Allan right from the outset. With the limited time you get we went with the guy who had been involved for the longest time.”
Asked why he was convinced Dell was ready for the rigours of Test rugby, he replied: “Because he’s an athlete. He’s strong, got a good attitude and he’s a competitor.
“It’s our mindset that will determine what happens in this game. We’re not going to sit back and worry that he’s only got one Test, or he’s only got three Tests. We’ve just got to get out there and put a good team effort in.
“If we do that and back those guys up and we believe in them, they’ll give their best shot and that’s all we can ask of them.”
Huw Jones, who will also be winning only his second cap after featuring on the Japan tour in the summer, gets the nod at centre and Cotter admitted the fact he has Super Rugby experience against Australian opposition came into his thinking.
“That did weigh into it,” said the coach. “He’s been sharp, and he played well in the Currie Cup. He’s on top of his game, we feel, and a good character.”
Hamish Watson, who has been on eyecatching form for Edinburgh this season, is preferred at openside to John Hardie, who takes his place on the bench, and Cotter praised the 25-year-old flanker for the work he has done to earn what will be his third cap and first start.
“Hamish hit the ground running first day in camp,” said Cotter. “He’s moved forward as a person, a player and as a character. I think his game has become more rounded. His carry was always very good. Now he is working on techniques.
“He can do things that other players can’t do. At loose forward you always judge them on being able to do things that change the game. Hamish gets the chance. He’s been sitting in there, biding his time and been patient. We think it’s his time to get out there and have a crack.”
When asked what it was that Watson brings to the party that others don’t, the coach replied: “He’s very explosive, quick and strong, good upper body strength. He’s very strong in his carry, whether in close or out wide.
“His support lines have got a lot better. You see him linking a lot more and if he gets in a bit of space he runs as quick as a world-class centre.”
Cotter has opted for a back-row containing height and versatility, with John Barclay at blindside and Glasgow’s Ryan Wilson at No 8.
“Barclay is interesting because although he’s played seven, he’s actually more suited as a six or a No 8,” said Cotter. “He’s a lineout option, as is Ryan Wilson. We know that lineout will be important in a set-phase battle.
“Both are very quick off the ground. Barclay can support seven, he knows the game and the running lines. John and Ryan can cover and it can allow Hamish to be released at times to carry, which he’s powerful at.”
Cotter said that Glasgow co-captain Henry Pyrgos wasn’t 100 per cent last week which has seen his clubmate Ali Price take the scrum-half replacement slot and three players were listed as unavailabe due to injury – Dickinson, Josh Strauss and Duncan Taylor. “It’s ongoing with medical. I don’t know at the moment,” Cotter reported when asked if he expected them to be available for next week’s Test against Argentina.
“We’re still waiting to hear back from Saracens for Duncan Taylor. He seems to have a complication with regards to his ankle. Josh Strauss should be okay and Dicko’s calf keeps niggling away and hasn’t come right yet. He’s in there getting well looked after.”