WHEN coaches make miminal alterations to their teams, it is often said they have “resisted the urge to make wholesale changes”.
In Andy Robinson’s case, it is an urge the national coach has always found easy to resist.
Many Scots under-performed in Saturday’s 13-6 defeat by England, but Robinson does not have a wealth of talent in reserve. He was therefore always likely to restrict himself to a couple of changes to the starting XV to play in Wales on Sunday and, it is expected that Greig Laidlaw and Geoff Cross will be the only newcomers. Cross will come in at tighthead prop for Euan Murray, who declines to play on Sundays for religious reasons, and Laidlaw will replace Dan Parks at stand-off.
Parks, who yesterday announced his retirement from international rugby, would probably have been dropped from the squad – not just from the starting line-up – after the crushing disappointment of the Calcutta Cup defeat. Glasgow stand-off Duncan Weir will come on to the bench as Laidlaw’s understudy, having been one of Scotland A’s most impressive performers in a 35-0 win over England Saxons on Friday night at Netherdale.
Cross’s promotion leaves a place on the replacements bench for Alasdair Dickinson, provided he recovers from the shoulder injury which saw him pull out of the squad last week. If not, Jon Welsh or his Glasgow colleague Ed Kalman should step in.
Another change among the replacements should see the introduction of Stuart Hogg at the expense of Graeme Morrison. Hogg scored an outstanding try for the A team, while Morrison was the only unused substitute at Murrayfield.
Although Hogg has played mainly at full-back, he can also play at outside centre.
Wing Max Evans, who will retain the No 11 jersey, also offers cover at 13. And Nick de Luca, who will again start in that position, can slot in at inside centre if required. Sean Lamont, who will start at 12, can be cover for the back three along with Hogg, who still appears in line to be handed his first senior start before the end of the championship.
In his time as England coach as well as latterly with Scotland, Robinson faced criticism for conservative selections. His choice of Parks for the Calcutta Cup game was met with widespread scepticism, including from some knowledgeable former players.
Robinson’s argument was that Laidlaw, the only other contender for the No 10 jersey against England, lacked enough experience. That remains a matter of conjecture but the Edinburgh player was livelier in his 23 minutes on the field than Parks was in his 57. Laidlaw not only came close to scoring a try but did far more than Parks to spark the back line into life. While he remains a seasoned scrum-half who is still short of big-match experience at No 10, he has done more than enough to show he is the best candidate to start Sunday’s match at No 10.
With Laidlaw in, the question was whether Chris Cusiter should hold on to his starting place at scrum-half or Mike Blair start alongside his Edinburgh colleague? Robinson opted for the former, but it must have been a close-run thing.
Blair came off the bench at the same time as Laidlaw, and played a significant part in lifting Scotland’s game. That told in his favour, as did the fact that, as he knows Laidlaw better as a player, he is best placed to guide him through the difficult moments which arise in an international.
Similarly, Cusiter plays alongside Weir at Glasgow, and might therefore be more suited to coming off the bench with his club team-mate than to starting with Laidlaw. But his form has been better than Blair’s over the oast month or two, notably in the head-to-head league matches between the two Scottish sides.
The 13 players who retain their places have not simply been rubber-stamped. Perhaps only back-row forwards David Denton and Ross Rennie did enough to merit that distinction.
But the coaches know that, among those who have kept their places, even the ones who were poorest on Saturday are capable of more. And, in the absence of in-depth competition, there is little alternative but to trust that they will produce more this time round.
Likely Scotland team to face Wales on Sunday:
15 Rory Lamont
14 Max Evans
13 Nick de Luca
12 Sean Lamont
11 Lee Jones
10 Greig Laidlaw
9 Chris Cusiter
1 Allan Jacobsen
2 Ross Ford
3 Geoff Cross
4 Jim Hamilton
5 Richie Gray
6 Alasdair Strokosch
7 Ross Rennie
8 David Denton