FRIDAY evening matches are no good for this column which is, unavoidably, written and filed before they are played, writes Alan Massie
So anything one writes can look silly the next morning. With that proviso, one can say that it will be a delightful surprise if Scotland beat Argentina, and that we should be satisfied if the margin of defeat is narrow.
On account of injuries and the return home of almost all the players contracted to English or French clubs, Vern Cotter has had to cobble a squad together from those available. It’s no disrespect to those selected to say that probably no more than four or five of the starting XV would be first choice in normal circumstances. A number of the team would not even be second choice in their positions. Of course this gives them an opportunity and incentive. Rob Harley, for instance, has the chance to show he can be every bit as effective for Scotland as he is week-in week-out for Glasgow, Peter Horne to demonstrate that there is still a place for a comparatively lightweight, elusive runner in international rugby, and Nick De Luca to prove that Alan Solomons was wrong to eject him from Edinburgh.
Criticising the selection may be pointless in the circumstances. Nevertheless, Cotter has made an odd decision at half-back where Duncan Weir is paired with Grayson Hart while Henry Pyrgos, with whom Weir has often played very well for Glasgow, is on the bench alongside Tom Heathcote, likely to be Hart’s partner at Edinburgh next season. It would have been more logical to field the established Weir-Pyrgos partnership – and perhaps fairer to both players. No matter. One hopes that this improvised XV can put in a more convincing performance than last weekend’s one against Canada. Argentina are also fielding a much-changed XV, which may even things up a bit.
Meanwhile, England stand-off Freddie Burns says he is confident that, this time, England can beat New Zealand and Warren Gatland’s Wales have yet another chance to show that they don’t always lose when they play one of the Big Three from the southern hemisphere. England have run the All Blacks close in the first two Tests, even if the final score last week flattered them. For the first 25 minutes of the second half, New Zealand played superbly. It says much for England that they didn’t collapse, but came back to score two “consolation” tries. But the truth is that the match was dead with a quarter of an hour to go. It was noticeable that, when opportunities for the All Blacks to cut loose presented themselves, the chances were taken, and one reason may have been that, at such moments, the three-quarters weren’t impeded by the presence of front-row forwards and locks in the back-line.
Nevertheless, no matter what happens in the third Test, England have done enough to show that Stuart Lancaster is putting together a team capable of playing very good rugby, one that is almost certainly now the best in the northern hemisphere.
Watching his second-string side demolish the Crusaders in midweek and scoring tries almost at will, one was left with the uneasy feeling that England A, as it were, might be capable of winning the Six Nations. Certainly, few of us could be confident that Scotland could beat the English side that played the Crusaders. One may note, too, that England have just retained the under-20 junior World Cup title by beating South Africa in the final in Auckland. England have got their act together. Good news for rugby, bad news in the immediate future for us.
I doubt if many, even in Wales, expect Gatland’s men to end their long run of defeats by southern hemisphere teams today. It is remarkable that, although Wales regularly beat us, we actually have a better record against South Africa and Australia over the last decade.
Do the Welsh simply lack self-belief when they come up against any of the southern Big Three? Or has Gatland taken this Welsh team as far as he can, and is it time for a change of coach? Another heavy defeat would surely have that question being asked persistently in the valleys.
On a different tack, the absence of David Denton from the second half of our summer tour, because he has not fully recovered from the concussion he sustained playing for Edinburgh last month, is both worrying and reassuring. It is worrying because the concussion was evidently severe and because cases of concussion are too frequent now. It is reassuring because it at least shows that the SRU are taking their responsibility for players’ health seriously. In contrast, New Zealand’s outstanding No 8, Kieran Read is back for the match against England, three weeks after being concussed. No doubt the doctors have passed him fit, but we need to get a ruling about a mandatory period of recuperation in the case of a concussed player.