BIG Vern Cotter blew into town last Wednesday after taking some time out to digest what was undoubtedly a disappointing end to the season for Clermont.
The new Scotland coach said goodbye to the French giants on a losing note, with defeats in the semi-finals of both the Top 14 and Heineken Cup. He now takes the reins of the national side and his first mission is a gruelling four-Test tour which will see Scotland travel to North and South America before rounding things off with what is likely to be a bruising encounter with South Africa in Port Elizabeth.
Clermont famously opted for age over youth, whereas the twin Scotland squads that Cotter will be working with over the summer have gone in the opposite direction. The North American crèche, especially, boasts a number of fresh-faced, inexperienced youngsters, who look like they are still mastering the art of shaving never mind international rugby.
The players who didn’t make the cut this summer are almost as interesting as the ones who did. Al Kellock was perhaps the highest profile loser but overlooking twin opensides John Barclay and Ross Rennie was arguably more controversial. Their absence leaves just one specialist seven in each squad, just after Toulon’s Steffon Armitage reminded everyone in the Heineken Cup final the damage a good seven can do at the breakdown... even if he did play with a number eight on his back.
You fancy at least one of the experienced Rennie/Barclay duo will be back in the mix when Cotter is drawing up his preliminary squad for next year’s World Cup but their ambitions may run into a rival from left field.
It’s fair to say that the uncapped London Irish flanker Blair Cowan has yet to make his mark north of the Border but the Kiwi, whose mum is from Dunoon, recently won the Exiles’ Player of the Year award. In addition to the traditional attributes, Cowan brings something extra to the shirt – the ability to attack like a centre when space opens up, although he probably doesn’t quite match the impetus of Mark Bennett. The Glasgow centre is probably the player with the biggest grievance, snubbed after being overlooked for everything other than the Commonwealth Sevens. Dougie Fife, who won his only cap against Wales on the wing, got the nod ahead of Bennett and he did so as a centre because there are only two specialist midfielders in the squad for the South America/Africa legs of the tour (Dunbar and Horne) but four other candidates for the back three.
Much of the focus was on the front row where Ryan Grant is having surgery to correct a problematic shoulder. To many, Grant’s heir apparent is Alex Allan, who recently moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow just as the older man did some years back. Along with hooker Kevin Bryce, the front row pair shared a sum total of 58 minutes of professional rugby this season. Anyone who thinks that the national management team has a big sway in pro-team selection needs to think again. It’s difficult to criticise Gregor Townsend since his selection policy brought about yesterday’s RaboDirect final for Glasgow but his Edinburgh counterpart Alan Solomons insisted on picking Wicus Blaauw in the absence of any evidence that the Namibian-born prop has what it takes.
Grant’s appointment with the sawbones over the summer opens the door for someone to mount a challenge for the No.1 shirt but Allan is some way down the front-row food chain, so his sights may be more realistically set on the 2019 World Cup in Japan rather than next year’s shindig.
The other obvious problem position for Cotter is hooker, where the candidates are either small (Scott Lawson), struggling to get a start for their club (Pat MacArthur) or a timebomb when it comes to the lineout (Ross Ford), which is why Bryce got the nod. He is much the same size as Ford (6ft 1in and 16∫st) and rumours suggest that he shifts more metal than anyone else in the Scotstoun gym. His throwing is improving and he brings an aggressive edge to a pack that needs it. If Ford can get his arrows on the bull, or close enough, he will likely start the big World Cup games. If he can’t then there is little point in having him anywhere in the squad unless/until Cotter transfers the throwing duties to a prop because there is nothing in the law that requires a hooker to do the task.
Since the World Cup squad will probably boast three hookers, Bryce has an outside chance of making it but Stuart McInally might have something to say about that. The former Edinburgh No.8 missed out on the summer tours but he has garnered good reviews from Bristol, where he has been on loan.
Scotland’s best two scrum-halfs, Chris Cusiter and Greig Laidlaw, both compete for the No.9 shirt on the North American leg of the tour. Grayson Hart and Henry Pyrgos are on the South America/Africa sojourn and know they will be probably battling it out for the third World Cup jersey.
Goodness only knows who Scotland’s best stand-off may be but Glasgow’s Finn Russell is the coming man. He is challenged by Tom Heathcote, who desperately needs a change of scene after just two league starts for Bath last season. Cotter can’t pick someone for the World Cup who is playing almost no rugby, especially in that position. There is a fine line between admirable determination and stubborn stupidity and the Heathcote is perusing the border in some detail.
Old rivals Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir travel on the second half of the trip along with Peter Horne, who returns to South Africa almost exactly one year after that ugly injury to his anterior cruciate ligament which kept him sidelined for much of the season.
Peter Murchie, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland, Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont are all competing for the back three over the summer’s twin tours. Six candidates for what are likely to be just four or five World Cup places. Let the games begin.
SCOTLAND’S SUMMER SCHEDULE
• Sun 8 June: United States v Scotland; BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, 1.30am BST
• Sat 14 June: Canada v Scotland; BMO Field, Toronto, 7pm
• Fri 20 June: Argentina v Scotland; Cordoba, venue TBC, 8.10pm
• Sat 28 June: South Africa v Scotland; Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth, 4pm