ONE of the many frustrations of being Scotland coach is the limited room for manoeuvre when things go wrong. No matter how badly the team performs, no matter how many of them you feel like dropping, the number of changes you can make is restricted by the shallow pool of talent. Factor in a lengthy injury list and your options shrink further.
That is the position in which Vern Cotter finds himself as he looks forward – if that is the right phrase – to his team’s next game, against England at Twickenham a week on Saturday. Few players even approached pass marks in the 22-19 defeat by Italy at the weekend, but the New Zealander simply does not have the strength in depth needed to make multiple alterations to his starting XV. Instead, he looks set to restrict himself to just three – each case being a player who is available again after injury or suspension.
The most probable change is at stand-off, where Finn Russell is back after his two-week ban. Peter Horne played well for the most part against the Italians, but his match will be remembered primarily for that costly failure to find touch from a penalty in the dying minutes. Russell is by no means error-free himself, but he established himself as Cotter’s first-choice No 10 back in the Autumn and nothing has happened since to change that.
In the back row, Edinburgh’s David Denton and Glasgow’s Adam Ashe will compete to take the No 8 jersey from Johnnie Beattie, who was first to be substituted on Saturday after a lacklustre outing. Ashe should get the nod given his fine form in November, with the question about Denton then being whether it is too big a risk for the squad to include two No 8s who are short of match practice.
The other change in the pack should see Jim Hamilton return to the second row in place of Tim Swinson. Hamilton was ruled out of the Italian game because a groin injury made him unable to train in the early part of last week, but he came off the bench for the last half-hour of Saracens’ home win over Newcastle on Saturday. His disciplinary record is a liability for a team trying to reduce their penalty count, but his dynamism and bulk could be invaluable in the Calcutta Cup match.
Hooker Ross Ford had to come off against Italy after suffering a severe back spasm, but is expected to be fit next week. Seven other players are also being rested and retained by the national set-up rather than being released to their clubs: Alasdair Dickinson of Edinburgh, and six Glasgow players – centres Mark Bennett and Alex Dunbar, hooker Fraser Brown, lock Jonny Gray, tighthead prop Euan Murray and full-back Stuart Hogg. Those players, like Ford, should hold on to their squad places for the next match.
Glasgow winger Sean Lamont’s place is not so secure, however, with much depending on how his clubmate Sean Maitland progresses this week. Maitland is back in training this week, and could figure in his team’s home league game against Zebre on Friday evening.
Yet even if he does well against the Italian club, Maitland will be short of match fitness, which could tip the balance back in favour of Lamont. The question then for Cotter will be whether to find the winger a place among the three backs replacements, who on Saturday were scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, stand-off Greig Tonks and centre Matt Scott.
In any event, Maitland’s ability is set to push two other wingers further down the pecking order. Tim Visser played in the 26-23 loss to Wales but gave way to the fit-again Tommy Seymour for the Italy game, and Dougie Fife scored against France but has not been involved in the last two matches. One other back who could be considered is Chris Cusiter. Now recovered from a knee injury, the scrum-half would acquit himself well if selected, but is unlikely to be chosen ahead of captain Greig Laidlaw and back-up No 9 Hidalgo-Clyne.
Like Russell, Richie Gray was a big loss on Saturday, having been ruled out of the Six Nations after damaging an arm tendon against Wales. The Castres lock is one of three squad members to have been sidelined as a result of being injured in that match, the others being Glasgow props Jon Welsh and Gordon Reid.
Of those players who have been listed by Scottish Rugby as unavailable due to injury over the past few matches, some would in any case have been hard-pressed to make it into the squad. Saracens centre Duncan Taylor and Glasgow flankers Tyrone Holmes and Chris Fusaro come into that category, and so perhaps does Wasps stand-off Ruaridh Jackson. Glasgow scrum-half Henry Pyrgos will also need to be patient once he has recovered from a knee injury, and the three No 9s ahead of him in the pecking order will delay his return in any case.
Duncan Weir, who is recovering from bicep surgery, would definitely have challenged Horne and Tonks for a place in the squad. Another absentee who would have been in the team is Grant Gilchrist. Cotter’s chosen captain for the November Tests, the Edinburgh lock missed those games because of a broken forearm and has not played since. His loss, both as a leader and as a key player in the lineout, has been keenly felt. The only consolation for the coach in the wake of the Italy defeat is that, while his deck of cards is smaller than he would have liked, at least he now has a week and a bit in which to consider how best to shuffle it.