THERE are times in the life of every squad when the selectors have to decide between continuity and change. If their team is steadily getting better, do they persist in the hope that the improvement will continue season after season, or do you decide that a radical shake-up is required?
That’s the normal picture anyway, whatever the sport, whatever the team. But in the case of the Scotland sevens squad for these Commonwealth Games, a third option has been added. Depending on results next weekend, it is an option which could end up looking like an uneasy compromise between conformity and innovation – or may come to be seen as an inspired choice.
The home team have indeed been steadily improving in recent seasons – admittedly, from a modest starting point. But that steady improvement never looked like being enough on its own to turn the Scots into contenders for medals, so the selectors opted for something different.
The core of the squad remains, their experience on the sevens circuit being deemed essential. And then come the new additions, players such as Stuart Hogg who may have had little to do with sevens in recent years, but have the ability to change the complexion of a game thanks to the inspired way in which they play.
For Hogg’s Glasgow Warriors team-mate and fellow-sevens-squad member Richie Vernon, it is a promising blend which could be just the thing to ensure a podium finish.
“We’re confident if we play to the best of our ability there’s a great chance to do well,” he says. “We have a lot of experience in our ranks, after all.
“Sean Lamont has 87 caps for Scotland and it’s great to have players like that to turn to, as they’ve played in such huge occasions in the past.
“In the grand scheme of things we’ve got a short period of time to gel together, but the spine of the squad has been together for a couple of years now.
“If we gel and get used to the structures, that will make the difference. If we make ourselves hard to beat, then hopefully we have the quality in other areas that can give us an edge.
“As a player, this is a great sport to be involved with at this level. In those big, open spaces all your skills are tested to the max.
“It has been really enjoyable so far, and I’m confident I’ll go back to Glasgow for the new season a better player and a better centre for the experience.”
A better player and a better centre – the position he moved to last season from the back row – but a Commonwealth Games medallist? Vernon sees no reason why not, and is honest enough to admit he would regard silver or bronze, not just gold, as a successful outcome. “I’m not worried about the colour of medal, but medalling is certainly something I dream about.
“We would be happy with any sort of medal, but if we can hit the heights of which we’re capable, and with the support of a home crowd, anything is possible.
“This is one of the strongest sevens squads we’ve assembled for a long, long time. We have confidence that if we go out and do well we have as good a chance as anyone we come up against, starting with New Zealand. “The All Blacks are always a great challenge. Some people don’t like to be reminded of the fact we’ve never beaten them, but the thought of taking on one of the form sevens teams in the world only inspires me. Someone has to break that run without a victory at some point, so why not us?”
If Scotland even come close to winning a medal, the Ibrox crowd is sure to become one of the noisiest of the entire Games. Vernon knows the audience will be very different both from the usual Rangers support and the traditional sevens crowd, but is still convinced the backing they give the home team can become a vital element in Scottish success.
“I’ve been to watch a couple of football games there and the atmosphere is great. Big Al Kellock [the Glasgow Warriors captain] is a Rangers fan and took me along to watch them beat Falkirk 2-0 a couple of seasons ago.
“The stadium is quite enclosed, and there is a vociferous support there, and I’m looking forward to playing in that arena. A lot of fans who attend for the Games won’t be familiar with rugby sevens, but that will only add to the atmosphere.
“I’ve played sevens events before in Wellington and they were very passionate, but it’s going to be fantastic in Glasgow as you’re talking 40,000 for each of the different sessions over the weekend.”