IT’S a tough job at the best of times, tighthead prop. And it must be tougher still if you know you have been selected for that pivotal place in the front row only because a team-mate has chosen to take a back seat.
That is the situation Geoff Cross finds himself in this week, having been selected for Scotland because Euan Murray declines for religious reasons to play on a Sunday. But the Edinburgh forward sees no reason to be downhearted.
Cross has been picked ahead of Moray Low, who was widely expected to be chosen for the RBS Six Nations match against Ireland at Murrayfield on Sunday. And Cross plans to do everything he can to persuade interim national coach Scott Johnson that he should keep his place for the following game against Wales. And he accepts that, if Johnson and his fellow selectors still deem Murray to be the No 1 pick for the No 3 jersey, so be it.
“I’ve been here before,” Cross said yesterday after being named as the only change from the Scotland team that beat Italy 34-10 two weeks ago. “This is, again, an opportunity for me to say: ‘Look, this is why you should pick me’.
“If I get it right, I’ll be putting those reasons forward. If I get it wrong, I’ll be giving the coaches ammunition to say: ‘We’re not picking you because . . .’
“In the past, there are things that Euan has done better than me, and that’s why he’s been picked again. Those are to do with getting off the ground quicker, how he rucks and how he scrummages. Until I improve on those things more than the guys getting picked ahead of me, they’ll continue to be picked ahead of me.
“I like being part of a meritocracy. The challenge for me is to get the most merit.”
While Cross highlighted three aspects of play in which Murray is thought superior to him at present, Johnson pinpointed just one area of the game when asked why he had chosen the Edinburgh forward over Glasgow rival Low. “He’s picked there to make sure that our scrum holds, and our scrum goes well, and he was deemed the more dominant scrummager,” the coach said. “We went on that alone.”
If the phrase “dominant scrummager” conjures up a certain stereotype, it is one to which Cross certainly does not conform. His physical prowess may make him look like a typical prop, but his character is a complete departure.
Quick-witted and often light-hearted too, Cross is an entirely different personality to anyone Johnson has worked with before. “I don’t think I’ve ever coached a kid like him, but I thoroughly enjoy his company,” the coach continued. “He’s right down my alley.
“I come in every morning not knowing what to expect, and that’s a pleasant surprise in this day and age. So he’s entertaining, but, as my old dad used to say, ‘He’s so heavenly that we’re trying to find his earthly use’, and I think we’ve found it as a tighthead prop. How’s that?”
For his part, Cross appreciates the coach’s honesty – in particular, the way in which Johnson has made it plain to every player what his responsibilities are in each area of play.
“The reason I enjoy working with Scott Johnson is that – while he is a 50-year-old man and he says he’s made many mistakes in life, he’s never played to the standard of the international guys he’s working with today – the things he asks you to do are almost embarrassingly simple. But he asks you to do them extraordinarily well.
“There is still a challenge in that for me, to do the simple things extraordinarily well. I’ve heard that from other coaches as a recipe for success, that the best players do the simple skills extremely well, no matter if they’re tired, even if they don’t have enough time, they’re in pain or under whatever pressure, they still do it.
“If we want to perform at the highest level, which I believe we can as a squad, that’s what we’ve got to get right. And that’s what we’re working on. The difference in the message from Scott is the simplicity. He can be a bit of a philosopher, but that’s fine, I like that.
“I was not surprised to be selected because I believe if I work hard on the things the coaches have asked me to work on, an opportunity will come. And I’ve been working hard with the national team coaches to do the things they want me to do, to the standard they want me to.
“I think it’s important that I deliver in some of my core roles. I’m a tighthead prop, and one of the tighthead prop’s core roles is to deliver in the scrum.
“I’m one of the guys who channels the force. It’s important that I do that.”
At 30, Cross is approaching his peak as a prop. He knows what he has to do if he is to claim a regular place ahead of Murray, and he is confident that he is now better equipped to do it regularly.
“The important thing for me is to do the stuff that I do well and keep doing it well, not go up and down like a rollercoaster or blow hot and cold. If I can deliver those things consistently and the coaches are confident in that, well, that’s how I’ll challenge to keep the jersey.”