THERE are areas in the Scotland ranks where fit men still can virtually walk into the Test squad, others where the competition is such that good men are left out and then some that bring a wry smile to the face of interim head coach Scott Johnson.
Stand-off is one position that could be represented in all three categories. With Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir developing their rivalry again at Glasgow, Tom Heathcote striving for game-time at Bath to get back in the mix and Harry Leonard eager to return from injury and push his case at Edinburgh, Johnson would appear to have more choices than his predecessors.
Jackson and Weir are at the head of the queue but still have aspects of their game needing improvement, however, and consistently confident game management in the full glare of the Heineken Cup, never mind Test arena, is one that remains a work in progress.
But asked whether Greig Tonks was a serious contender for the No 10 jersey in the forthcoming RBS Six Nations, Johnson smiled broadly. “I tell you what, I have been saying for a while I have been wanting him to play there to have a look at him because Tonksy played a bit there at junior level.
“We miss a left footer, [Peter] Horne’s injury affects that a little bit, and I like the versatility. It is a nice option to put in, and he has done really well at ten. He has shown great resolve defensively and is a smart rugby player, which is nice to have. I am quite pleased with that one.”
Tonks only shifted from full-back to stand-off when Harry Leonard was injured, joining two other fly-halves in Piers Francis and Gregor Hunter in the treatment room, but the former Northampton player took to the role with aplomb, and his confidence in running the Edinburgh game, with few mistakes, and the team’s improved form have made Johnson take him seriously as a game controller.
The common perception was that Tonks would return to the 15 jersey once Leonard returned in the coming weeks, but Johnson insisted that he was in this squad both as versatile cover but also because he offered a new stand-off option. “He is certainly making us question things and is putting pressure on the others; that is a good position to be in,” Johnson said.
“The form of both Jacko and Duncan has been good, in aspects of their game; it is consistency we are looking for. We talk about the consistency of performance we want within the squad but that is a position that is probably a bit more important that it is consistent. He has certainly put enough pressure on us that it will be a nice meeting of the backs, put it that way, because he won’t know which camp to sit in and that will be good for all.”
For all that there are no real surprises in uncapped duo Chris Fusaro, who has been pushing for some time, and Dougie Fife, who has dominated the Edinburgh scoring charts in the absence of the injured Tim Visser, there were a number of a questions to be asked.
What was the thinking in leaving out Roddy Grant, arguably the form flanker in Scottish rugby in recent months? Ross Rennie is a quality player, but he has started just two games and come off the bench in three others, while Grant has been one of the most consistent performers in the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup. John Barclay is another who will be wondering what he has to do to be part of Johnson’s plans.
Acknowledging that that area was a tough one to call, the coach said that once Fusaro had claimed a spot it was essentially a call of Grant, Brown or Barclay, as he considered them to be similar players offering similar strengths, while Rennie offered something unique. “It was a tough decision and I had to go through the individuals and get a balance of the back row. I came to the conclusion that we look at Kelly purely as a seven now unless we get a lot of injuries.
“We have some good athletic six and eights coming through. Kelly is a brave, resilient player and the game has moved a bit and he has done really well for Saracens at seven. His numbers [statistics] for us at seven have been good for us too. I want a little more from the blindside flanker and No 8 around the field, and I want Kelly running hard on the ball at seven, which he’s been doing.
“In terms of the opensides, we wanted a balance. Ross Rennie is at the other end of the spectrum. He is a different type of player. He has had some issues off the field [injuries and the recent death of his mother], but I am a big fan of Ross and we don’t have many of his type.
“Chris has gone away and worked on elements of his game and this is just reward. Roddy has played really well for Edinburgh but he and Kelly are similar types and we felt for a better balance for the squad we would go with Kelly. We also looked at John Barclay and again it’s the balance. It is very difficult to leave out players of that ilk but it shows that we are in a pretty good position.”
Henry Pyrgos was another name expected to feature in the squad and he would have had Johnson named three scrum-halves, with Greig Laidlaw and Chris Cusiter the top choices, but the coach said that he kept Pyrgos out of the 36-man group as he will be an integral part of the Scotland ‘A’ squad that will face the England Saxons on Friday 31 January at Scotstoun.
Where the resources are thin, however, is in the front row with Euan Murray still recovering from an Achilles injury and not expected to feature at least until midway through the championship. So Geoff Cross and Moray Low will battle it out for the No 3 jersey, and Johnson said that while he would have liked Cross to have enjoyed more game-time than his fleeting appearances as a replacement for Willem Nel recently, he is confident that the Borderer, much like Matt Scott, Sean Lamont and Jonny Gray, who are all named despite recent injuries, will be up to the Six Nations challenge.
“You would like him to get a run out a bit more and he will get some game time at the weekend, I am sure, but he has to earn the right to get that jersey. We want the pro teams to have that same mindset so Geoff has got to force his way into that squad. The more he does that, the better player he will become. I won’t run away from the fact that I want Scottish kids at all levels to compete. As it is turning out he has got an opportunity because of injuries to others and he has done well in the past. This is reward for that but he has to do it now.
“It is never perfect with some players needing games. He [Scott] may be a bit ring rusty but we will have to balance that in his training requirements, but you can also say he is fresh. Ask me in three weeks’ time. Jonny has done well to get back as early as he has but we are waiting on medical reports, and so that will go down to the wire. We will leave it a week. But he is a prodigious talent, we like what he stands for and it is important for his growth and Scotland’s national growth that he is part of it [the training camp]. How much he does is up to the medics.”
This squad, he added, was shaped to produce results, the year of 2013 and blooding players and trying out combinations gone. He wants “an edge” in the first squad of 2014. “There is still some development in the squad, some forced changes and some have grown,” he said, “and I am happy with the maturity of some of the younger players coming through. We are at the cusp of change and that is nice, but I keep coming back to the fact that this tournament will be tough and ultimately won on consistent performances.
“People talk about the Lions series and say ‘watch out for the French’. The return of the Lions will have effect – they won the series and will be buoyed by that. It will be a tough old campaign but we have shown that if we get our part right we can compete against anyone and that is what we want to do. We want to show we are in this competition.”
Scotland squad (for training camp 19-22 January):
Forwards: John Beattie (Montpellier), Kelly Brown (Saracens), Geoff Cross, David Denton, Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford (all Edinburgh Rugby), Chris Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Ryan Grant, Jonny Gray (both Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Kieran Low (London Irish), Moray Low, Pat MacArthur (both Glasgow Warriors), Ross Rennie (Edinburgh Rugby) Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson (both Glasgow Warriors).
Backs: Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh Rugby), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Max Evans (Castres), Dougie Fife (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart Hogg, Ruaridh Jackson, Sean Lamont (all Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Greig Tonks (Edinburgh Rugby) and Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors).
Not considered due to injury: Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) and Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby).
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE