SCOTLAND head coach Vern Cotter has defended his decision to include South African duo Josh Strauss and WP Nel in his 46-man training squad for the World Cup, saying he has no “political” view on rugby’s residency rules.
Edinburgh prop Nel completes the three years in the country required to qualify for Scotland this month, while back-row forward Strauss – who started as captain in Glasgow’s Guinness Pro12 final triumph at the weekend – will be able to play for Scotland as of 19 September, one day after the World Cup starts and four days before the opening pool match against Japan in Gloucester.
World Rugby’s residency rules have attracted criticism, with many arguing that they should have no place in the international selection process at all, or at least require a longer period of stay in the chosen country than the current three years.
Nations around the world have taken advantage of the situation to boost their squads and Scottish Rugby made no secret of the fact that the South African pair were being viewed as so-called “project players” when they were signed to the pro teams three years ago. Another South African, Edinburgh back-rower Cornell du Preez, will become eligible next summer, while the Doncaster-born Glasgow prop Mike Cusack, who moved to the Warriors in 2011, is included in this extended squad and also qualifies through residency.
“I look at it from a rugby point of view,” said Cotter at BT Murrayfield yesterday. “Josh is a very talented player and he adds value to this team. He has been very influential with Glasgow.
“He has a massive desire to play for Scotland. Although he had had a couple of beers when we let him know that he would be involved [following Saturday’s Pro12 final win over Munster in Belfast], you could tell it really meant something to him.
Physically we’ll be working very hard to find peak form. We know that teams play better in the Rugby World Cup, and we want to be one of those teams.Vern Cotter
“WP’s children were born here in Scotland. Those guys are playing here, they live here. I have no problems with those players fitting in because there is such a strong culture in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The culture of this country is impressive and they are already affected by it.
“That’s how I see it. I don’t see it in any political form whatsoever. All I see is players who want to pull the jersey on and do their best for the country where they live.”
Strauss was even mentioned as a potential Scotland skipper by the coach yesterday. He hopes to have Grant Gilchrist fully recovered from the broken arm which ended his season shortly after the 24-year-old Edinburgh lock was appointed captain for the autumn Tests.
Asked if he saw Gilchrist as a possible World Cup captain, Cotter said: “Yeah, we’re lucky to have leaders who have put their hands up. Josh Strauss has. Henry [Pyrgos] did very well and showed good leadership for Glasgow at the weekend.
“Grant obviously has that and Greig was outstanding against Edinburgh in the European final. He controlled that game. So we’ve got players who can do that. Grant is a leader, Jonny Gray has had captaincy roles. So we have options.
“There may be two captains.”
Scarlets flanker John Barclay could end his two-year Scotland exile after he was also named in the training squad. The 28-year-old has been overlooked for successive RBS Six Nations tournaments.
As well as Nel and Strauss the other uncapped players named in the group are props Mike Cusack and Allan Dell, hooker/flanker Stuart McInally, back-row forward Hugh Blake and young wingers Damien Hoyland and Rory Hughes.
Notable absentees include Johnnie Beattie, former skipper Kelly Brown, Geoff Cross, Kieran Low and Dougie Fife, who scored Scotland’s first try of this year’s Six Nations in Paris.
Ryan Wilson, who recently returned from a three-month ban following an assault conviction but is suspended internationally until late August, is named in the squad which will be whittled down to 31 for the World Cup.
Cotter was keen to stress that the squad was by no means a closed group.
“Flexibility and being able to adapt are among our key themes as we move towards the final 31 and the Rugby World Cup. This is not a firmly fixed squad, it’s a living document,” said the New Zealander.
“There are a number of players we’ve spoken to who will be working on things with their clubs and looking for form, and may well feature in our warm-up games as a chance to push for selection.
“We’re working hard to be as cohesive as possible and push the limits of how far we can go.”
Those limits will be put to the test in a fortnight’s time when the squad travel to train at high altitude in Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees, returning home for two months of skills, conditioning and tactical training at the home of Scottish rugby.
Cotter added: “Our priorities will focus on the major aspects of the game.
“Physically we’ll be working very hard to find peak form. We know that teams play better in the Rugby World Cup, and we want to be one of those teams.
“We have four matches before the tournament; four 80-minute spells in which we can practice our combinations and work our plays, in attack and defence, providing opportunities for a number of players to compete for a place in the final 31.
“Every team entering the Rugby World Cup wants to win, but to win a World Cup you first have to qualify from your pool, and that’s our major focus: two games in five days [Japan and USA] followed by another in six [South Africa] and another in seven [Samoa].
“We’ll focus on preparing appropriately for each of those matches, so that we can become as effective as possible in this Rugby World Cup.”
Scotland will face France, Ireland and Italy as part of the national team’s build-up to the World Cup.
The four-match schedule played on consecutive Saturdays from mid-August (15th) will begin when Cotter’s men travel to face Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Back-to-back fixtures against Italy will follow in Turin (22nd) and Edinburgh (29th), before concluding preparations against France in Paris at the start of September (5th).
The final squad will leave for Gloucester on Wednesday 16 September, ahead of their opening Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool match against Japan at Kingsholm Stadium on Wednesday 23 September (kick-off 2.30pm).
The Scots will face USA at Elland Road in Leeds (Sunday 27 September) followed by South Africa and Samoa on consecutive Saturdays (3 and 10 October) at St James Park, Newcastle.
EXTENDED SCOTLAND SQUAD: RUGBY WORLD CUP 2015
Mike Cusack (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Allan Dell (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 44 caps; 4 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) – 22 caps
Willem Nel (Edinburgh Rugby) – Uncapped
Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors) – 8 caps
Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons) – 4 caps
Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) – 8 caps
Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) – 85 caps; 8 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – Uncapped
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) – 8 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 13 caps
Richie Gray (Castres) – 44 caps
Jim Hamilton (Saracens) – 61 caps; 6 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 15 caps
Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) – 12 caps
Adam Ashe (Glasgow Warriors) – 5 caps
John Barclay (Scarlets) – 43 caps; 4 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Hugh Blake (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Blair Cowan (London Irish) – 11 caps
David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) – 25 caps
Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan) – 44 caps; 3 RWC appearances (2011)
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 9 caps
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 1 cap
Chris Cusiter (Sale Sharks) – 70 caps; 6 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh Rugby) – 5 caps
Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester) – 39 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 13 caps
Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps) – 25 caps; 3 RWC appearances (2011)
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 9 caps
Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors) – 7 caps
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 14 caps
Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 7 caps
Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) – 25 caps
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) – 12 caps
Richie Vernon (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps; 3 RWC appearances (2011)
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 32 caps
Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby) – Uncapped
Rory Hughes (Glasgow Warriors) – Uncapped
Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) – 93 caps; 8 RWC appearances (2007 and 2011)
Sean Maitland (London Irish) – 15 caps
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 17 caps
Greig Tonks (Edinburgh Rugby) – 4 caps
Tim Visser (Harlequins) – 18 caps