One hadn’t thought of Vern Cotter as a gambler, but the choice of three players with next to no international experience is a throw of the dice. Of course Josh Strauss, Willem Nel and John Hardie have all played high-level club rugby, but any old internationalist will tell you that the step up to the international game is a big one. Some never quite make it. Brendan Laney came here with a tremendous reputation in New Zealand provincial rugby and often played outstandingly well for Edinburgh yet rarely came off for Scotland and his international career was disappointing. Explaining his choice of Hardie (after less than 60 minutes of international rugby against Italy in Turin) Cotter said: “16 tackles and no misses.” Fair enough, though he didn’t mention two knock-ons.
Cotter is, of course, a much better judge of a player than any journalist is likely to be, and Hardie may well prove to be one of the stars of our World Cup campaign. As Simon Taylor wrote here last week, if Hardie, Strauss and Nel all contribute to a successful World Cup campaign, muttering will cease and we’ll take them to our hearts. Nevertheless, in an ideal world, one would rather not give the Scotland jersey to players who turned to Scotland only when they concluded that they wouldn’t be chosen for the country of their birth. Hardie will have to do very well indeed to persuade many of us that he deserved to be selected at the expense of John Barclay. I wonder if Cotter has been unwilling to pick Barclay and Kelly Brown because they have been more accustomed to losing than winning when playing for Scotland. He may think them inured to defeat. On the other hand, his own team, without either of them, lost six matches out of eight last season.
Despite the strength of Gatland’s XV, the Twickenham factor will probably enable England to get out of their pool
Some may think this fourth warm-up match one too many. As against that, it is only the second game in which Cotter is fielding something close to what is, one assumes, his first-choice XV. Indeed, given that Stuart Hogg will be at full-back, one would think that the only positions in doubt are at wing-threequarter, where any two of the four may be chosen, at inside centre where it’s a choice between Matt Scott, who plays today, and Peter Horne, and Jonny Gray’s partner at lock, either big brother Richie or Grant Gilchrist. Otherwise it looks like a settled team. One always fears injuries in warm-up games, even though one knows they are every bit as likely to occur in training.
France in Paris, however, is a very tough assignment. The French forwards dominated the English ones in their previous two warm-up matches and, with their captain Thierry Dusautoir back, will be perhaps even more formidable this evening. One may be tempting fate if one suggests that, after all his erratic selections, Philippe St-André may at last have happened on something like the best French squad. Defeat today might again upset his plans but, whatever happens in Paris where Scotland haven’t won since 1999 (though we’ve come mighty close to doing so a couple of times), I reckon that France have as good a chance of winning the World Cup as any Northern Hemisphere side.
Ireland were disappointing against Wales in Dublin last week. They looked limited and alarmingly one-paced. They were also out-muscled at the breakdown. In extenuation, it was the first outing for their influential half-backs, and neither Conor Murray nor Jonny Sexton was anything near his best. Sexton’s kicking in the first half was quite unusually poor. Wales, on the other hand, looked pretty competent but should be worried by their failure to translate forward dominance into points. They may find it hard to score tries against good sides.
On the other hand, they have Leigh Halfpenny to turn the sort of pressure that yields penalties into points. He is probably the best goal-kicker in the world.
Meanwhile, Warren Gatland, Wales’ own Kiwi coach, has been limbering up for the big clash with England by playing his habitual mind games. Oh yes, he says, England have lots of really fine players, I only wish I was spoiled for choice like Stuart Lancaster. But there’s a drawback, he says. I know my best team, he doesn’t know his. And, what’s more, England haven’t yet settled on the way they want to play.
All this is excellent fooling, delivered straight-faced and deadpan. The worrying thing for England is that Gatland may well be right. All the same, and despite the strength of Gatland’s first-choice XV, the Twickenham factor will probably be enough to enable England to get out of their pool. They lose very few matches there after all. They have try-scoring backs and an ability to dig in. Their weakness may be in the back-row of the scrum where their captain, Chris Robshaw, for all his merits, is more a 6 than a 7.