THE rugby world marches to the rhythm of a four-year World Cup cycle so when Italy coach Jacques Brunel – evidently unhappy with the old guard’s performance at last year’s World Cup – recently announced his latest training group he included a whopping 20 uncapped players amongst the 35-strong squad.
Oddly enough, just one Scot, Alasdair Strokosch, took the opportunity to announce his retirement post World Cup, although Jim Hamilton stood himself down before it all kicked off.
It is not quite dead men’s shoes but the lack of retiring players leaves little enough opportunity for Scotland coach Vern Cotter, pictured below right, to promote fringe faces into his Six Nations squad which will be announced after next weekend’s round of European ties. The abundance of injuries may yet open a few doors. The coach has a sore head himself from pondering several problem positions exacerbated by that list of the injured – Grant Gilchrist, Henry Pyrgos, Alex Dunbar and Rob Harley are all sidelined, while Tim Swinson and Josh Strauss are both recovering from head knocks. Some of the above are making good progress and should be included in the squad with a view to them recovering in time to take some part.
SIXES & SEVENS
Rarely have positions been more aptly named because flanker is the itch that Cotter can’t help scratching right now along with his own head. If John Hardie impressed at the World Cup, his intelligence matching his beligerence, he has fallen a little short of those standards since. More than one rugby boffin thought he was outplayed by Chris Fusaro for three of the four halves of the twin 1872 Cup derbies, although that may be down to the Kiwi playing back-to-back seasons without a break.
John Barclay and Blair Cowan, in that order, are the breakdown specialists and everyone witnessed the damage that Aussie flanker David Pocock inflicted by picking the opposition’s pocket at RWC15. Those same World Cup statistics insist that this is a problem area for Scotland, not just in the third row of the scrum but across the park. The flip side is that the Scots are usually on the right side of the penalty count but perhaps the balance needs tweaked?
The back row is all about balance and if the destructive David Denton starts at eight then at least one of the flankers must be comfortable with the ball in hand. Again Cowan and Barclay, in that order, are the leading candidates (presuming Hugh Blake is concentrating on sevens) although both men could play at six and, with a sizeable front five, the Scots may have shed their perennial concerns about being out-muscled up front.
Openside flanker: John Hardie, Blair Cowan, Chris Fusaro, John Barclay... your guess is as good as mine
Backup: As above
Long shot: Hamish Watson
Blindside flankers: Ryan Wilson/Josh Strauss
Backup: Josh Strauss/Ryan Wilson
Long shot: Adam Ashe
Eight: David Denton
Backup: Josh Strauss
Long Shot: Adam Ashe
Not long ago you couldn’t count all the locks jostling for a Scotland spot, now they could play ping pong in a phone box. Hamilton has retired from the international game, Tim Swinson took a bang to the head and Grant Gilchrist is studying medicine full time, or so it seems. Rumours suggest that Gilchrist is closer to a comeback than some fear and Cotter’s initial pick for Scotland skipper may yet be named with one eye on the two Six Nations matches in March.
Brothers Richie and Jonny Gray are in good form for Toulouse and Glasgow respectively, and there may have been a changing of the guard between Edinburgh’s Toolis twins, the uncapped Alex gaining ground on his capped brother Ben in the 1872 derbies, although the latter only recently returned from injury.
Locks: Gray & Gray
Backup: Toolis & Toolis
Long shot: David Denton/Grant Gilchrist
Another headache for the coach at least partly driven by Alex Dunbar’s slow progress in recovering his best form after his knee operation, hampered by two additional injuries. At his best Dunbar is outstanding, Scotland’s best back, but the Annan man has been operating well below those levels on the odd occasion he has made it on to the field this season.
Mark Bennett is pretty much nailed down at outside centre and, presuming Finn Russell starts at ten, Cotter may opt for a more muscular 12 to shore up the Scottish backs who were worryingly porous during the World Cup. Samoa scored three tries in the space of 11 minutes while it took Australia all of 13 minutes to score three of their five, either side of the half-time break.
Matt Scott is the front runner but Saracens’ Duncan Taylor, who was unlucky to miss the World Cup, will surely be there or thereabouts. Given his ability to play 12, 13 (his chosen spot) or even 14 at a pinch, he is an obvious candidate for the bench.
Inside centre: Matt Scott
Backup: Duncan Taylor/Alex Dunbar
Long shot: Peter Horne
Outside centre: Mark Bennett
Backup: Duncan Taylor/Alex Dunbar
Long shot: Chris Dean
The front line front row are pretty much a shoo-in, especially while Fraser Brown struggles to hit the bull, but there could be a shuffle on the under-card. Depending upon how he fared yesterday in Paris Zander Fagerson may leap-frog Jon Welsh, who failed to convince at the World Cup. On the opposite side of the scrum, Edinburgh’s Rory Sutherland impressed in the 1872 Cup and he may have elbowed his way past his two Glasgow rivals to become Alasdair Dickinson’s understudy.
Tighthead prop: WP Nel
Backup: Zander Fagerson/Jon Welsh
Long shot: Jon Welsh/Zander Fagerson
Hooker: Ross Ford
Backup: Fraser Brown & Stuart McInally
Long shot: Pat MacArthur
Loosehead prop: Ally Dickinson
Backup: Ryan Grant/Rory Sutherland
Long shot: Gordon Reid
NINE & TEN
As you were at half-back, with the possible exception of Ruaridh Jackson, who has been in good fettle for Wasps and brings the added advantage that he can cover full-back. If Henry Pyrgos is not fit – and Glasgow have missed him horribly – Cotter needs to find a third scrum-half.
Scrum-half: Greig Laidlaw
Backup: Sam Hidalgo-Clyne & Henry Pyrgos if fit, Ali Price if not
Long shot: Brendan McKibben of London Irish
Stand-off: Finn Russell
Backups: Duncan Weir & Ruaridh Jackson
Long Shot: Peter Horne or Tom Heathcote, who had been starting for Worcester until a head knock
ELEVEN, FOURTEEN & FIFTEEN
Back three: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland
Backup: Tim Visser (if fit)/ Sean Lamont/Ruaridh Jackson (for 15)
Long shot: Dougie Fife/Damian Hoyland
There was better news about Tim Visser’s hamstring injury so the big Dutchman may yet take his place in the squad, otherwise Scotland have almost no cover on the wings and Sean Lamont cannot go on forever... can he?