CONSISTENCY is a key plank in the success of any team, but Andy Robinson's desire for a consistent approach to selection is now being severely tested ahead of his first RBS Six Nations Championship as Scotland's head coach.
• The established Scotland front row of Euan Murray, Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen have further underlined their credentials as first-choice picks under Andy Robinson. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The issue of who will wear the No10 jersey is the prime example, but it is far from the only great debate to have emerged from the winter of Edinburgh discontent and blossoming Glasgow confidence.
Dan Parks has won the battle of the two stand-offs, but what Robinson, Gregor Townsend and Graham Steadman will be analysing in some detail now is just what he did in the two Magners League derbies against Edinburgh – effectively unofficial international 'trials' – and how much of it can translate into the bigger picture of the Six Nations, and the attacking style of game they believe holds the key to turning Scotland from simply a difficult team to beat to a threatening, try-scoring opponent. We knew before the Greaves Sports 1872 Cup matches that Parks could kick better than any in Scotland and that, behind a pack securing good possession, can control the areas in which games are played, at pro level. International rugby has, in 47 Tests, proved less controllable for the Glasgow pivot.
The discussion over who leads Scotland into battle against France at Murrayfield in just over three weeks' time, will focus as intently on what Phil Godman did and did not do at Firhill and Murrayfield, and how much better he might be with a more proficient pack.
All coaches have their favourites. They deny it, of course, but for what we term 'a favourite' they see as simply the better player. One looks through the last Scotland team of the autumn and players the calibre of Ross Ford, Allan Jacobsen, Alasdair Strokosch, Johnnie Beattie, Godman, Ben Cairns, Thom Evans and the Lamont brothers are all what one might view as Robinson's first-choice players.
Yet, all of them are now under real pressure for their place, and, on form alone, may not make the cut for the XV to face the French.
Robinson has made clear to the players and public that he picks on form, but like all coaches before him that is only ever part of the story. If a coach believes player A is far better than player B, full stop, he will often ignore form. If, more pertinently, Robinson believes Lions cap Ford a far more capable hooker than Dougie Hall of Glasgow then he may stick with the Edinburgh man, but that comes with an element of hope that Ford can recapture his best form – albeit after a late start to the season and the usual after-effects of a Lions tour – with a return to a navy blue jersey.
It also delivers a negative message to the on-form Hall. Jon Welsh is another Glasgow player whose claims for Test selection have been enhanced in recent weeks. In his first season as a regular starter at pro level, the 23-year-old has driven Geoff Cross backwards in the scrummage, defended formidably, shown up well in and around breakdowns and played with vigour and ambition in attack.
On the other side of Hall, the tighthead prop Moray Low has merely underlined his claim to the No3 jersey. He won it last year and held it through the autumn Tests, as Euan Murray was injured. Murray has declared himself unavailable for the opening Six Nations game with France as it is on a Sunday and now conflicts with his religious beliefs, so Low is in pole position to retain that top.
But who will pack down alongside him? It must be tempting for the coaches to opt for the full Glasgow front row, given their recent form and their ability to work well together. But, how much does their claim for selection come from the individual performances and how much the unit or the overall team's displays, and how much are Edinburgh's woes the fault of a prop or some poor lineout throws? And what value is placed on experience? Ford was in good form in November, and how would Hall cope with a first start back at Test level in nearly two years, and Welsh a Test debut, against perhaps the hardest scrummaging side? Alasdair Dickinson is also in the frame at Gloucester.
In the second row Al Kellock has, like Low, firmly pressed his claims to continue as the lineout controller alongside Nathan Hines, his opponent this Friday. Alasdair Strokosch's Gloucester are still struggling to win games in the Premiership while Kelly Brown, Glasgow's blindside flanker, is returning to his best form, the kind of form that made him a certainty to cover Scotland's back row from the bench if not start in previous seasons.
John Barclay has responded to the challenge from Alan MacDonald with typical grit and demonstrated his value with another great game in Glasgow's win at Murrayfield while Richie Vernon has jumped ahead of Johnnie Beattie, Robinson's autumn choice for No8, and offers a new, faster attacking threat from the base of the scrum. But is he ready to usurp the more experienced Beattie at Test level?
The back line starts and finishes with the stand-off, in the sense that if Robinson and his coaches do not get the right ten in place, one able to carry out their instructions and execute skills well enough to ensure the more dangerous players outside him enjoy good attacking opportunities, Scotland's promise will fall as flat as it has done for the past few championships.
Alex Grove has started the last four games for Worcester, since returning from impressive Scotland duty, so must remain a favourite for one of the centre positions under Robinson. That essentially leaves Glasgow's Graeme Morrison and Max Evans, and Edinburgh pair Cairns and Nick De Luca all fighting for the other spot and bench place. Morrison was, arguably, the most consistent in the derbies and, particularly if his teammate Parks is handed a recall, that makes a compelling case for Scotland to opt for Grove outside him at 13.
Evans' pure skills, pace, grubber kicks and all-round trickery linger though; a Grove/Morrison and Evans combination is an intriguing one.
The back three is no simple matter anymore either. In Scotland, Thom Evans is the clear wing favourite, but Nikki Walker and Simon Danielli scored two tries each last weekend, as their clubs the Ospreys and Ulster stepped up their Magners League challenges. Sean Lamont was Robinson's autumn choice along with his brother Rory at full-back.
Reports suggest that Hugo Southwell is back in fine form at Stade Francais while Chris Paterson has underlined, even in defeat, his qualities as a goal-kicker and one of the few experienced and intelligent counter-attackers available to Robinson.
There must be a great temptation to promote a whole clutch of confident Glasgow performers into the Test arena, but would that harness the best of all that is available? So, the first Scotland selection of 2010 may start with form, lean heavily on which player the coaches simply believe are the best in their position and then draw on combinations and which players they feel work best with others. It is jigsaw time for Robinson with just three more weeks of club matches remaining before he has to fit it altogether.
It has to be greatly encouraging for Scotland supporters that there is such competition for places, but poor form is playing its part in that and some big names have the same amount of time now to keep their Scotland careers on track at the start of a new decade.