THE assembled journalists had made the long trek to Newcastle Grammar School which will host Scotland for two weeks during next year’s World Cup while they play South Africa and Samoa, two games that will go a long way to deciding the group.
The scribblers made yesterday’s trip in the hope of discovering exactly who head coach Vern Cotter had anointed as his latest captain after Grant Gilchrist enjoyed the briefest of reigns before injury intervened. We were all disappointed, including the Kiwi coach himself. He would like to tell us, he explained, but he simply couldn’t say who was still going to be standing next week, never mind ready and able to lead the side against Argentina at BT Murrayfield on 8 November. Rugby is a rough old game and, while Scotland have no more injuries than any other nation, the lack of depth in some positions means that Cotter feels the hurt more than most.
“Obviously, with the injury to Grant we will announce a captain next week for the game against Argentina,” explained the Scotland coach. “Where the priority has been, genuinely, even though it’s [the captaincy] been in the back of our minds, we’ve been prioritising looking at injuries.
“Our medical staff have been really busy assessing what the players can do and what they can’t do, just trying to bring everybody together, just discussing what our intention is going to be for the game.”
The feeling remains that whichever of the three scrumhalves makes the starting team has a fighting chance of leading the side as well, although Cotter mentioned flanker Rob Harley as another potential candidate.
The problem is that two of the scrummies in the squad are injured and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who was drafted in as a late replacement, is more focused on getting a start for his club than his country. Chris Cuister has a calf strain and Greig Laidlaw is struggling with a bruised leg. Neither did much in the way of training at the three-day Newcastle camp.
Cotter does have the consolation of both Edinburgh and Glasgow players coming off the back of twin wins in European competition. That is the good news. The bad news is that the intensity of European competition means that the players arrived at Newcastle so completely done in that it wasn’t until Wednesday that they could raise a decent gallop on the training paddock.
“A lot of players couldn’t train these last few days,” said Cotter. “Chris couldn’t train, Greig was on the paddock today but he wasn’t for the first couple of days, so we need to see who is going to be standing after this round of games this weekend, what team we can put out and who is best suited to lead it. There are a lot of teams just come through the European games, and they are hotly contested, even if it’s the ones in the second tier [Challenge Cup] competition. Intensity goes up, physical engagement obvious increases so there is a knock-on effect.”
Starting a week on Saturday Scotland face Argentina, New Zealand and Tonga in successive weekends and none of the above are likely to roll over and play possum. Cotter tagged the Pumas as the most improved team in the international arena, the All Blacks pose a unique challenge just to keep the score respectable and Tonga, lest anyone has forgotten, beat Scotland the last time they set foot in this manor. Oh, and since then they have hired a World Cup winning coach in Jake White to help them.
Has the Kiwi carved out a cunning strategy over the course of the three-week campaign, Cotter was asked? If only life were so simple.
“The ground shifts so quickly,” the coach explained. “We need to see Monday who we’ve got and who we are going to have for the game against Argentina. I think Argentina are probably the most improved team internationally. We need to see who we have left. No, I don’t [have a strategy] because we don’t know how we’re going. But we’ll start with Argentina and see where we finish with Tonga.”
With so many players unable to do anything more than spectate from the sidelines, was the Newcastle session worth all the effort?
“It’s just great to spend time together and go through certain content,” argued Cotter. “It’s just good to be together even if you can’t do things at 100 per cent but you can always talk to your players and explain what you expect from them and that type of thing. And obviously things will be clearer next week when we come together and it’s a short week before we play Argentina.
“It’s a worthwhile exercise and having a look at the facilities and checking out the hotel and things so its been good.
“You have to prioritise, you have to analyse and prioritise your work. We’ve got good players so we just need to create coherent systems and get cohesive performance and we haven’t got much time to do that so we just try and keep things simple and try and do them well. That’s just the key to it and it will always be.”
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