SCOTLAND coach Vern Cotter has made an adventurous squad selection for the RBS Six Nations Championship, bringing in four uncapped players – among them one who only arrived in the country last month – while omitting several established names.
Back-row forward Hugh Blake is the complete new boy, having just enlisted with Edinburgh from The Highlanders in New Zealand. Although he has yet to play for the capital team, the 22-year-old has impressed Cotter in club rugby.
Blake is joined by three fellow novices from Edinburgh in scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, lock Ben Toolis and back-row Hamish Watson. Hidalgo-Clyne is preferred in the 32-man squad to former national captain Chris Cusiter, while other significant omissions include John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and another former skipper, Kelly Brown.
Greig Laidlaw remains as captain, having fulfilled the role in the Autumn Tests after initial choice Grant Gilchrist suffered a broken arm. Matt Scott is back in the squad after missing the summer and autumn internationals through injury and his fellow centre Mark Bennett also returns after being taken off injured against New Zealand in November. Stuart Hogg is in, and should be available for the championship opener against France after missing recent Glasgow matches with hamstring damage.
Having selected only two stand-offs and two hookers, Cotter expects to add two or three more players to his squad over the next fortnight, with Beattie a contender should he opt to augment the back row. But, as things stand, this is a bold statement of intent. The coach believes he has the core of a team that can consistently do itself justice, and now wants to integrate flair players who can add unpredictability and menace, with Blake being a key example.
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“He was a New Zealand under-20 player in 2012,” Cotter said of his compatriot, who is eligible for Scotland through his grandparents. “Very fast. A skilful
player. He plays seven, six, can play eight.
“He’s a talented young player who has made the choice to come over here. He could have stayed comfortably over in New Zealand and worked his way up over there. He is proud of his Scottish heritage and put his hand up to be involved.
“He has a skill set we don’t have. We’ll have a good look at him during the Six Nations in training. He’s a promising young player.
“He’s very quick across the ground, and equally tough attacking as defending. He’s capable of changing the course of a match.
“He gives us something a little bit different to what John [Barclay] does. He gives us a bit more speed, more turnovers and the way we want the team to head towards we need speed, we need initiative, we need to be able to tackle, to be able to change the course of games.
“Hamish is very similar. Slightly different profile as he’s a genuine seven, while Hugh can probably play six and eight as well. That’s competition for spots and that’s important.
“If we look at Ben Toolis’ stats, he’s the best ball-carrying, line-breaking lock we have. He made 14 carries and 19 tackles last weekend, which is exceptional for a lock, and he’s very good at lineout. He’s another who has seized his opportunity and I want him to be involved through his performances.”
Hidalgo-Clyne has been preferred to Cusiter not only for his good form as a scrum-half, but because of his place-kicking. “He offers us a goal-kicking option if he comes in or if he starts. That means we can keep points turning over, especially late in the game. This will be important, also late in the year when it comes to the World Cup. He’s playing well. His out-of-hand kicking has been good. He’s showing character and spirit around rucks and he’s attacking the opposition teams.”
While the likes of Hidalgo-Clyne have come through the ranks and had to wait patiently for this first chance of a senior cap, the fast-tracking of Blake brings to mind the case of another New Zealander, Brendan Laney, who was named in a Scotland squad just days after his
arrival in the country in 2001. As Cotter looks ahead to the Rugby World Cup, however, he sees the coming games as an opportunity to heighten competition within his squad.
He has no qualms about
selecting those who he believes merit inclusion. “There’s still old heads within the group,” he said when asked to assess his squad. “And it’s getting the right mix, the get-up-and-have-a-go, and the knowledge of how to do it. This is how we’ll start and we’ll see how we get on with it, but we’ll adapt and move as we go through the competition. But this is certainly preparing us for what comes later in the year.
“We see a way we can express ourselves on the paddock and see players who have skill sets and talents and qualities that can bring that. All of the players have been selected on recent form. We’re comfortable. We want to take a pragmatic approach, but we want to look at changing our profile, the way we play, as well.
“We want to build on some of the good things during the Autumn Tests. A nucleus of the team is there, and we’ve added some great talent and some enthusiastic players who have been performing well for their clubs.
“It’s not going to be easy, but we’re definitely going to try and do our best and improve. And become a team that can change the way it approaches a game, or controls a game.
“We’ve got a very positive group that want to do well. They will make mistakes, because that’s part of the game, but there’s such a genuine desire to do well. We’ll keep developing what we do well, believe in what we do, and keep moving forward knowing that once we come out of the Six Nations that is it. We’ve got four games before the World Cup to try anything else.”
Glasgow forwards Ryan Wilson and Ryan Grant, who are currently involved in court proceedings, have been omitted, but Cotter could draft them in later. “They’re out for the moment. They are innocent until proved guilty, but they have a lot on their plate at the moment. They might come in.”
Gilchrist is one of seven players listed as unavailable through injury. The others are Adam Ashe, Chris Fusaro, Tyrone Holmes, Ruaridh Jackson, Duncan Taylor and Duncan Weir.
SCOTLAND 2015 RBS 6 NATIONS SQUAD IN FULL:
FORWARDS: Hugh Blake (Edinburgh Rugby), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Cowan, Geoff Cross (both London Irish), David Denton, Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres), Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby), Jim Hamilton (Saracens), Rob Harley, Euan Murray, Gordon Reid (all Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Ben Toolis, Hamish Watson (both Edinburgh Rugby), Jon Welsh (Glasgow Warriors).
BACKS: Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh Rugby), Alex Dunbar, (Glasgow Warriors) Dougie Fife (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart Hogg, Peter Horne (both Glasgow Warriors) Greig Laidlaw CAPTAIN (Gloucester), Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland, Henry Pyrgos, Finn Russell (all Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Tonks, Tim Visser (both Edinburgh Rugby).
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