WITH Glasgow flanker Richie Vernon set to miss start of the Six Nations after contracting glandular fever, Scotland coach Andy Robinson has some tough choices to make before naming his squad this week, Iain Morrison reports
• Missing in action: Richie Vernon made a big impact during the autumn series and his absence will be a big blow for Scotland head coach
IF TIMING is everything in comedy it's also proving pretty important in the field of sporting endeavour and Richie Vernon has yet to master it. The Glasgow player exploded on to the international scene during the autumn Tests with some superb displays off the bench, but the big breakaway looks set to miss the Six Nations, or at least the start of it, after blood tests last Wednesday proved he had contracted glandular fever.
This can sideline a player for anything from three weeks to a year and obviously Vernon is hoping that his dose is at the bottom end of that scale. As a one-time medical student, the Glasgow man knows that glandular fever causes the spleen to expand and, if he returns to action too early, there is a danger it will burst.
It's a huge loss for Scotland and a blow to coach Andy Robinson, although at least he has less of a selection headache when it comes to picking his No.8, which may be a blessing of sorts.
Brian Moore once claimed that Robinson was a poor selector and Jake White has stated that 85 per cent of his job with the Boks was picking the right team. You have to hope one of them is wrong.
The thinking is that Robinson must he better off in Scotland where there are far fewer players to pick from and therefore fewer potential pitfalls. One of England's main strengths is also one of their weaknesses – the sheer number of quality players available to the coach can be a bit bewildering. How many times do the men in white actually field their strongest XV? Not when Ayoola Erinle shows up in the midfield, that's for sure.
Martin Johnson announced his Six Nations squad last week and Robinson will follow suit on Wednesday with what is expected to be a 32-strong group of players or, put another way, two players for each position with three scrum-halves and hookers.
In the outside backs it's more a matter of who to leave out than who to include. Robinson likes muscular players who can win the contacts so the Lamont brothers will be there because of that bias and the Evans brothers will get the nod despite it. Simon Danielli continues to impress for Ulster, Chris Paterson marches towards his 100th cap and Hugo Southwell proved his versatility yesterday afternoon. These are all old heads. If there is to be a surprise it could take the form of Edinburgh's uncapped utility back Jim Thompson, who has impressed in his recent outings.
In the absence of Euan Murray, the front row almost picks itself. The only real question is whether Gloucester's Ally Dickinson gets the nod ahead of Edinburgh's Kyle Traynor to fight Allan Jacobsen for the loosehead spot. In the second row, youngster Richie Gray is a live possibility to make his Scotland debut off the bench.
The third row is intriguing, with Jonnie Beattie the favourite to fill the No.8 shirt if only because he is the last man standing. Simon Taylor is injured and, in any event, made himself unavailable for the autumn Tests. It's not clear whether he wants to participate in the Six Nations should his injured bicep allow but that is academic right now.
Ally Hogg underwent surgery on his hip in recent weeks and Beattie's flatmate Vernon will be unbeatable at Call of Duty by the time is out of his sick bed. Until Dave Callam can depose the world's shortest No.8 in the form of pocket rocket Roddy Grant he can't hope to supplant Beattie in the Scotland No.8 shirt.
With Jason White breaking a leg, the No.6 place is a straight fight between Alasdair Strokosch and the much-improved Kelly Brown. The Melrose man looked out of sorts at times last season, perhaps unhappy at being shuffled about the back row, but he was arguably the best forward on the pitch in the twin derby matches against Edinburgh and he is right back in the running.
In similar fashion, John Barclay may not have things all his own way. The Glasgow man is ahead in the rankings right now but he must feel the hot breath of Ross Rennie on his shoulder. The Edinburgh flanker has watched more rugby than he has played over the past two years but has shown enough in two comeback games to suggest that he might make an appearance at the back end of this Six Nations tournament.
Much will depend on the medics. If they insist that his gammy knee needs more time then Robinson will surely grant that wish. Rennie has waited for two long years for a return to Test match rugby – his one and only cap came against Ireland in 2008 – he can wait a little longer if needs be.
As usual much of Robinson's focus will be on the Scottish midfield, where his main concern is the same as it ever was, picking the right playmaker. Phil Godman is a sure thing and Robinson will probably want back-up in the form of another specialist, either Dan Parks or his young understudy Ruaridh Jackson, who had a rare start against the Dragons on Friday night.
While Parks bossed the 1872 derby matches against Edinburgh, he remains a one-dimensional player in attack and a liability in defence. Glasgow hide him at full-back when the opposition has the ball, but at international level he would be found out. A barrage of high balls would rain down on Parks at full-back and the Aussie is not the most committed when it comes to retrieving them.
The All Blacks (against France) and Australia (against Wales) proved that it is perfectly possible to play 15-man, running rugby and score tries under the present laws. If Scotland want to develop their game and, especially, their attacking play, they need a fly-half who creates opportunities for his outside backs by playing flat and keeping the defence honest. At his best, Jackson does just that.
When he comes to picking the midfield to face France, Robinson has a tricky task. He must choose between three fly-halves (Parks, Godman, Jackson), three inside centres (Morrison, De Luca and Grove) and four outside centres (De Luca, Grove, Cairns and Evans). If my maths is right (Grove and De Luca obviously can't play in both positions at the same time) that amounts to a total of 32 different midfield combinations for the national coach to ponder. He may have fewer selection decisions to make than he did as England boss, but Robinson still has some serious head scratching to do before 7 February.