LOOKING from the outside, Scotland’s build-up to the World Cup has been fairly low key until now. With not a crumb of on-field action to get their teeth into, the rugby public have to rely on what “the camp” chooses to release to satisfy their curiosity about what the boys are up to.
Compared to the likes of Wales, whose PR team have been in overdrive in the last few months, releasing endless shots of tractor tyres being flipped in alpine meadows or of Jamie Roberts’ glistening torso, Scotland’s preparations have been conducted in relative obscurity.
The competition for final selection leaves absolutely no room for complacency within the squad
You have to think that Vern Cotter has a large say in how his squad are presented. As it stands, there isn’t much to shout about after the Six Nations, but you imagine that even if Scotland had won a Grand Slam with a record points haul, he would favour the same under-the-radar approach.
Frankly, thank goodness. It suits Scotland’s psyche to be able get their hard work done away from the distraction of publicity. We would probably prefer that as a sporting nation we loved the limelight and were empowered by the weight of expectation but, for whatever cultural reasons, there have been very few Scottish sportspeople over the years with that kind of mentality.
Coming into competitions under the burden of a favourite’s tag is not something Scotland have often had to deal with, but even our perennial role as “dark horses” can get the better of us. I think this is where Cotter is a very good fit for Scotland. He seems to be someone who doesn’t spend too much time worrying about opinion, conjecture and ifs and buts, his main focus being the process of improving his team, from which, all being well, the results will follow.
Certainly, it’s hard to think of a coach further removed from the bombast, soundbites and paranoia of a Matt Williams.
Leading into the World Cup, there hasn’t been any “dark horses” talk around this Scotland side.
In fact, nobody is really talking about us at all. As I say, this will be fine by Cotter and his squad, but the irony is that this has the makings of one of the best Scotland teams in years.
If you look at the traditional spine of the first choice side, made up of say, Ford, Strauss, Laidlaw, Russell and Hogg (and I’ll throw Jonny Gray in there just cause he’s brilliant), you have to believe we can be very competitive.
That might not sound bullish enough, but again I think it is in Scotland’s best interests to be realistic. Can we win the World Cup? Probably not. Can we get out of our group and have a fighting chance against England, Wales or Australia in a quarter final?
As for the selection for today’s match, there are certainly plenty of talking points for Scotland supporters. Whilst most of us could probably name 12 or 13 of Ireland’s first-choice side with little hesitation, Scotland still have to settle a number of combinations. But why not look on that as a positive? The competition for final selection leaves absolutely no room for complacency within the squad, and even England find themselves in the same boat at this late stage.
The biggest stir this week has of course been caused by the selection of Hugh Blake at No 7. Whatever your stance on the whole issue the fact is, while Blair Cowan did a solid job in the Six Nations, open-side is a position which is very much there for the taking. So why not give Blake a go and see what he can do?
More pressingly, after the retirement of Euan Murray, Scotland need to nail down who is going to be their go-to guy at tighthead prop. Jon Welsh gets his chance today to prove he can fill Murray’s wacky boots, with Mike Cusack to come off the bench, and both are proper old school, gnarly tightheads who have been great for Glasgow this year.
You would expect that the very mobile WP Nel will be given his shot against Italy over the next couple of weeks.
Like Hugh Blake, these boys won’t exactly be eased gently into their international careers.
So many new faces, along with the likes of Grant Gilchrist and Ruaridh Jackson looking to prove themselves after long-term injuries, means there will be no element of going through the motions today. If we are honest, more established players might view these friendlies as a necessary evil. The mental and physical preparation for a match like this has to be the same as for any other Test (otherwise injury or being made to look a fool are waiting just round the corner) but, deep down, players like Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien will know that, for them, this is half extended training session, half damage-limitation exercise.
Scotland’s side, on the other hand, contains a number of guys for whom this is one of the biggest games of their lives.