Injuries put pressure on Andy Robinson and Scotland
FOR a coach under pressure, a fresh spate of injuries was never likely to offer much relief heading into the new season.
But Andy Robinson is not surprised any more by the challenges he is presented with as head coach of the Scotland squad and he could not have imagined a worse casualty unit as he prepares to guide a team ranked ninth in the world against one Robinson describes as “by a long way the best in the world”.
And New Zealand are coming much better prepared, the new four-nation Rugby Championship having extended their season by over a month to October, meaning they face Scotland with only a three-week break, while the Scots will take to Murrayfield for their first match in nearly five months.
Robinson’s biggest concern lies around the scrum, which is nothing new for Scottish coaches who have spent the past decade working on gameplans to move ball away from pack confrontations as quickly as possible. Euan Murray’s religious beliefs are a matter purely for him, but it is difficult to remember a time when his unavailability, and, more pertinently, Scottish rugby’s failure to develop tightheads, has put more pressure on the Scotland side.
“With the new IRB regulations that you can have two props on the bench it puts us under pressure,” admitted Robinson. “We will be using Ryan [Grant] as our second tighthead.
“He did that for me when I was coaching him at Edinburgh and he’s been practising that at Glasgow, but I’d expect him to start at loosehead.”
So, Grant, who has had a run at tighthead with Glasgow, and admitted he prefers the No 1 jersey, will start at loosehead with Geoff Cross at tighthead, with the plan that Grant will shift across the scrum when Cross tires and Allan Jacobsen comes off the bench. If Grant is injured Cross has a long shift, with the All Blacks expected to bring both their fresh props off the bench in the second half. “We’re going to be under pressure there and this will be about manning up,” Robinson said. “We’re going to see some resilience from us and we’ve got to really tough it out, and that will be the case for the whole pack and the whole team really. We’re looking for a physical performance from our side.”
The other key query is how fit those selected will be. Robinson has been forced into naming a core of players currently injured. Glasgow’s Sean Lamont suffered a suspected fractured cheekbone against Northampton 11 days ago and if that is confirmed a return inside three weeks seems risky.
Greig Laidlaw and Tim Visser are close to returning for Edinburgh, but if they pass fitness tests this week should they play against Scarlets on Friday night and risk worsening the knocks they suffered, or rest for the next fortnight? Max Evans is back training with Castres after injury, and may play this weekend, while locks Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton are in a similar boat.
Robinson tried to sound an upbeat note yesterday, insisting: “I am confident that they will be fit to play come the game.
“It’s down to their healing powers and the way that they can keep their fitness up, and the mental capacity they have to be able to train in a way that sometimes might not be full contact but allows them to get themselves right to perform on the Sunday.
“Once I select the team I’ll be talking to those players who haven’t played by then about whether they are able to mentally and physically deal with the fact that they might not have had as much contact or game-time going into the game.
“I will talk with Scott [Johnson, assistant] and Matt Taylor [defence coach] and we’ll come up with a plan, but you want the player to be able to cope with that. That’s the key part of this.”
Is it? Players determining whether they are fit enough? And surely you want your players to have played matches before facing New Zealand?
“You do, and for someone like Jim Hamilton he’s had a lot of games up until last week. But that’s why I’ve got five second rows in the squad. With the injuries to Richie and Jim there is cover there, but I expect him [Gray] to be fit. We have to see if he plays this weekend.
“Sean [Lamont] has also had a number of games. So these players have played and it’s a bit like finishing the end of the season, having a bit of a break and then facing Australia. That’s how I will view it.”
If the injured personnel return to fitness in the next fortnight, Robinson can indeed put out a strong XV.
A forward pack of Grant, Ross Ford and Cross, Hamilton or Al Kellock and Gray, with Tom Ryder or Grant Gilchrist backing up, and Al Strokosch/David Denton, Ross Rennie/John Barclay and Kelly Brown/Stuart McInally is as good as we could expect. The back line is shaping up to be Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw as starting half-backs, with Matt Scott and Nick De Luca hoping to regain their form of last season in the centre, Tim Visser on one flank and Max Evans the other with Stuart Hogg at full-back. Much can happen between now and 11 November, however.
Fully aware that he faces a season in which he also must regain the faith of the Scottish public, Robinson accepts the challenge and believes it is not an impossible one. As ever, he has a plan.
“We have to focus on what we’re about. You have got to have an understanding of your role and be able to deliver your role, and if you do that to the best of your ability, and collectively you’re able to defend you have a chance.
“Teams that have put New Zealand under pressure are teams that have only allowed them to score one try, and that’s the mentality you have to go out with. The other aspect is you’ve got to score early against them, so you get the scoreboard in your favour.
“Ireland put them under pressure and only conceded one try, and I coached England against them, when we lost 21-17 in 2005, and we scored early and put them under pressure, but they got two tries against us which was why we lost.
“We’ve brought in a new defence coach in Matt Taylor and he’s done well with the Warriors, and it’s about him bringing his ideas to the team and for the team to understand that.”
Murrayfield Stadium rang out to the words “emergency, emergency” and had to be cleared a few hours after Robinson’s squad announcement. It turned out to be a false alarm. One hopes fears over Scotland’s squad strength at this stage turn out to be similarly unfounded.
ANDY ROBINSON ON....
The difficulty of selection with so many injuries
“I don’t think it was difficult to come up with the squad. We have a balance of Edinburgh, Exiles and Glasgow players. When we are putting together the 23 [to face New Zealand], it’s important we get that balance right, and that will be based on the how some performed on tour and their injury status, but also current form. Through the disappointments some guys have still been putting out strong performances, and that’s what we have to look at to gel this team.”
Euan Murray’s unavailability
“I asked Euan the question and he indicated to me
that he would still not play on a Sunday. I will always ask him the question and rightly for him he’s decided that he will not play on a Sunday and that will be his stance for good. There is no wavering.”
Chances of blooding uncapped players against New Zealand
“It’s a balance. For example, I’ve been delighted with how Peter Horne has played; his enthusiasm for the game. In that Northampton game he put his body on the line in attack and defence, and showed good touches with his left foot and with his passing game, and you get encouragement when you see a player like that. For all of these players coming in they have to be themselves when they come into camp and they all have an opportunity.”
Morale after Heineken Cup defeats
“It’s happened now and
it’s how everybody can respond. We want our players coming in on form and we’d have liked it to be different. We have to focus on the present. But I speak every week to Jim Hamilton and I’m pleased with what he’s doing, and I look at Kelly Brown and the way he’s playing, and players like that coming in get the energy going because they are players playing well.”
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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