Severe shortage at tighthead set to force Scotland coach into one of several call-ups
ANDY Robinson will announce the first Scotland squad of the season this week and, while the poor man is spoilt for choice in a few departments, he is desperately scratching around to make up the numbers elsewhere. Don’t go kicking a ball in Roseburn Park this afternoon, you might just get drafted.
Geoff Cross for the Scotland squad? If you think he has a decent chance of selection then find someone to take the other side of the bet and shake their hand until it falls off. Admittedly the popular tighthead prop was squeezed out of a Heineken Cup starting place for Edinburgh against Saracens by the South African WP Nel but Cross is back in the starting line-up this afternoon against Munster at Thomond Park. Frankly, he could be turning out for Gala YM on the wing and he would still make the cut.
In fact, Cross is as near as makes no odds to a sure thing for the autumn squad, if only by dint of the law of the last man standing. Over the last few weeks and months tighthead props have been falling like Premier League footballers in sight of goal, such that, by my ready reckoning, the next specialist No.3 in line for the Scotland squad is either Edinburgh’s Lewis Niven – who has started a total of five professional games – or Ben Prescott, who turned out for the Cornish Pirates against Dundee yesterday.
With an eight-man bench (including two prop replacements) now mandatory, Scotland are facing a full-blown crisis. Jon Welsh, Ed Kalman and Moray Low are all sidelined, as is Bristol’s Bruce Douglas, however unlikely his call-up was. And Euan Murray’s religious faith means he prefers to keep the Sabbath (when Scotland face the All Blacks) as a day of rest.
In the absence of any sensible alternatives Robinson may have little choice but to go with three looseheads – Ryan Grant, Allan Jacobsen and one of either Kyle Traynor (Bristol), Alasdair Dickinson (Sale, currently injured) or Grant Shiells (Newcastle Falcons) – plus Cross and keep his fingers crossed that the latter dodges the All Blacks’ bullets during the opening match on Sunday, 11 November. Murray would then come into consideration thereafter for the games against South Africa and Tonga. Grant may be able to double up at tighthead in extremis against the Kiwis, although the entire Murrayfield crowd would be watching that scrum through their fingers.
On the opposite side of the front row Jacobsen is fit and available again after taking the summer off, even though he has been edged out of Edinburgh’s run-on team by John Yapp. With little game time under his belt, he will do well to keep Grant, arguably the find of the summer tour, out of Scotland’s starting XV.
It goes from famine to feast when Robinson surveys his options in the boiler house. Richie Gray is expected to recover from the damage to his ankle ligaments that kept him out of Sale’s match against Montpellier, to take his place alongside Al Kellock in the second row. Gloucester skipper Jim Hamilton is another likely candidate after spending the summer on the naughty step, while Grant Gilchrist is odds-on to leapfrog Tom Ryder into the squad, although both men could merit inclusion.
Elsewhere there have to be changes to the summer squad because of those who have sustained injuries and others who have recovered from them. Joining the injured props in casualty are Chris Cusiter, Duncan Weir and Joe Ansbro.
Robinson won’t waste much time welcoming Kelly Brown back into the fold, although whether he gets the captain’s armband is another matter. Ross Ford didn’t do a bad job but there is a feeling that the hooker needs to concentrate on his throws rather than anything else. Furthermore, he does not skipper Edinburgh regularly and is not even the back-up since Sean Cox leads the side this afternoon in Greig Laidlaw’s absence.
There should be a tug o’war between Kellock and Brown for the honour, with the former favourite if Robinson thinks he can hold his place.
According to the national coach Alasdair Strokosch was the player of the Pacific Tour and the Perpignan flanker is just the sort of in-your-face street scrapper that Scotland need when they find themselves staring down the Haka in exactly three weeks’ time. The versatile Brown has played No.7 for Scotland in the past and could be asked to do so again.
A breakaway trio of Brown, Strokosch and David Denton brings plenty of physicality to the breakdown which, on the basis that prevention is better than cure, will be crucial if the home team hope to halt or even just slow down the All Blacks’ electric back line.
Mike Blair should fill the No.9 shirt and Rory Lawson could be pushed for a place on the bench by Glasgow’s Henry Pyrgos if the coaching staff want to look forward to the Rugby World Cup in 2015 rather than backwards. Ruaridh Jackson should replace Weir as No.10.
Mark Bennett could make his bow in the national squad although, if he does join up, it will probably be more for the experience than any realistic hope of a cap. Peter Horne has also put his hand up with a series of authoritative displays for Glasgow while proving himself deadly off the tee.
There is another famine in the backs, with Ansbro and brothers Sean and Rory Lamont out of action for the immediate future, although there is a fighting chance that Sean will recover from his facial injury in time to make an appearance somewhere, even if he misses the opening fixture.
Presuming Tim Visser takes his place on one wing, that leaves either Max Evans or Lee Jones to fill the other flank.
Staying with the back three, full-back Tom Brown won a cap on tour against Australia but the Edinburgh man is a little too similar in style to his Glasgow rival Stuart Hogg. Like Hogg he is a natural counter-attacker who loves to run with the ball in hand and, like Hogg, he is slight with it. Robinson might be tempted to add something a bit different at No.15 with Greig Tonks or Peter Murchie.
Edinburgh’s Tonks has a booming left boot, something Scotland have missed since Hugo Southwell fell from favour, and that probably gives the former Saint an edge over Glasgow’s Murchie but, if the national squad is picked on this season’s form and nothing else, then Murchie would be ahead of everyone else in the queue for the full-back role.
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