THE seeding for Wimbledon 2015 has just been announced with Andy Murray at No 3 behind Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. If you read that in the newspaper, you would think that the tennis authorities had gone bananas or were quite simply daft.
Fortunately, I made it up; there has been no such announcement. However, the seedings for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, based on rankings at the end of the autumn internationals, will be announced next month; and this seems to me every bit as cuckoo. What do the form and results of a team in 2012 tell you about its strength three years down the line? Precious little is the answer. Is there any good reason for announcing the seeds now rather than in December 2013 or, indeed, December 2014?
There has been a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth here because, being now ranked ten, Scotland will be in the third group to be drawn from the hat. Frankly, I doubt if it makes much difference whether we are in the second or third group. It seems likely, unless England do something extraordinary over the next two weekends, that the four top seeds will be New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France. The next eight countries – England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Argentina, Samoa, Italy and (probably) Tonga – are mostly capable of beating each other. Admittedly, our chances of getting to the quarter-final would be reduced if we found ourselves in the same pool as one of the Tri-Nations and England, but only because we would then have to beat England at Twickenham, something we have always found difficult. But it’s 3-1 against such a draw and, looking at the seven other countries there, it seems immaterial to me whether any of them is in the second group of seeds or the third one. In other words, I don’t think our progress to the knock-out stages would be made easier if we were seeded two, or is more difficult because we will be seeded three.
The talking point this week has been the recruitment of the young Bath fly-half, Tom Heathcote, and his selection for the squad against Tonga. Clearly he will come on, if only for five minutes, so that he is tied to Scotland and can’t be selected by either England or Wales, for both of whom he is also qualified. I have some sympathy with Craig Chalmers’s view that, if he is really committed to Scotland, he should be content to wait and play for our A team in the Spring. Nevertheless, we would look pretty silly if the Welsh selectors, unhappily aware that their famous fly-half factory seems to be turning out sub-standard goods at present, came and dangled the prize of a Six Nations berth before him, making the sort of offer described as one too good to refuse. The couple of times I’ve seen him he has looked a very good player in the making – but one still to be made, not the finished product.
All the same, we don‘t want to get back to having a Scotland XV, a third or more of whom have come here, or opted for Scotland, because they have decided that they are not good enough to play international rugby for the country of their first allegiance. We may never again, sadly, have a team like the 1984 Grand Slam one, composed of home-bred and home-reared players, with Jim Pollock the only Anglo-Scot, any more than Celtic will ever again field a European Cup side, all of whom were born within 30 or 40 miles of Parkhead.
Almost all international teams now have a few players qualified for more than one country. That’s the way the world is. Nevertheless, in both the short and the long run, Scottish rugby will not benefit if the national team is stuffed with players whose Scottish connection is tenuous and who have opted for Scotland faute de mieux. I am not suggesting that young Heathcote comes into that category. If he had opted for England or Wales, he would have stood a good chance of being capped before the 2015 World Cup, the fly-half position being up for grabs in both countries. We should be happy he has decided to be a Scot.
We should get back on the winning track against Tonga in Aberdeen this afternoon, though it will be physically very tough, especially for those who have played against both New Zealand and South Africa. I daresay Andy Robinson would have preferred the Tongan game to come first in our November schedule, but the order of matches has been, to some extent, determined by our lowly ranking, which means that we get the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, or to put it another way, have to be content with what we are offered.
Tonga used to be considered the weakest of the three Pacific Islands nations, but this is no longer the case. They beat France in the last World Cup and ran Italy very close a fortnight ago. They are physical and fast and better organised than they used to be.
I hope our defence coach, Matt Taylor, has devised some means of protecting Greig Laidlaw, perhaps as England used sometimes to have Joe Worsley standing off to block the fly-half channel. This may be all the more necessary because leaving out Mike Blair deprives us of our best cover-tackler. I am a bit worried about defence in the centre. Whatever Max Evans’s attacking abilities, he doesn’t tackle half as well as Nick De Luca. There will be a lot of stuff coming through the middle, partly because the game is being played on a football pitch, several yards narrower than Murrayfield. This suggests that, in attack, we should make use of the blindside wing and full-back coming in on an angle between fly-half and centre – and be wary of the Tongans doing the same.