Allan Massie: Scotland’s first XV no longer picks itself

Ruaridh Jackson. Picture: Getty
Ruaridh Jackson. Picture: Getty
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ALL coaches like to spring the occasional surprise, and the selection of a 41-man preliminary Scotland squad allowed Scott Johnson to make two unexpected picks, the London Irish forwards, Blair Cowan and Kieran Low, whom few of us have seen, or can remember seeing, in action.

Such a large squad means that there can be few surprising omissions, though Roddy Grant and Lee Jones may have reason to think themselves hard done by.

Grant was one of the few Edinburgh players to survive the club’s dreadful last season with his reputation enhanced. Jones, out with injury for most of it, hasn’t found favour with Edinburgh’s new coach, Alan Solomons, who seems to prefer large wingers, but Andy Robinson thought highly of him and he played well throughout the Six Nations in 2012. It will be sad – not only for us in Selkirk – if he has fallen off the radar.

Such a large squad gives no hint as to the players likely to start in the autumn internationals, though I suppose Johnson has a fairly clear idea of what his best XV might be. Yet, to the fairly unprejudiced eye, there would seem to be only a handful of players who can be sure of their places: Stuart Hogg (though he is unfit just now), Sean Maitland, Matt Scott and Greig Laidlaw in the back division, and Ryan Grant, Euan Murray, Richie Gray and, probably, Kelly Brown up front.

Since the first match is against Japan, improving but weaker than South Africa and Australia who come later, many would probably like to see some of the uncapped players chosen for that game – perhaps the two youngest, Mark Bennett and Jonny Gray, both of whom have been playing outstandingly for Glasgow. Yet the Japan match also gives Johnson the chance to give his preferred first XV a run-out in a match that Scotland will be expected to win. This makes it likely that the youngsters will, at most, be given a second-half canter.

Last season’s November internationals were the other way round, as it were, with the sternest test, against New Zealand, coming first, and the supposedly easiest, against Tonga, as the third game. That, of course, was lost, but I doubt if I’m alone in thinking it would have been won, even comfortably won, if the order of matches had been reversed and it hadn’t come after gruelling games against the All Blacks and the Springboks.

There is competition for places throughout the team, which is a nice change from times when the question hasn’t been “who should we leave out?” I would suspect that the pecking order at fly-half is currently Ruaridh Jackson, Duncan Weir, Tom Heathcote. Jackson has been playing very well, the best rugby of his career, for Glasgow, while Weir is finding his way back after injury and Heathcote has usually been kept out of the Bath team by the very talented and young George Ford. Yet much may depend on the style in which Johnson wants to play, and that may depend on the forecast weather conditions. If these seem to indicate that a kicking game makes better sense than a running and passing one, then Weir might get the nod.

How much importance should be attached to the set scrum? The revised laws mean that, though many scrums still result in penalties, there are also better opportunities to use it as a source of quick ball and a means to get the backs running than there have been for a long time. In the last two or three seasons, the Scotland scrum has tended to go well when Jim Hamilton is one of the locks, and badly when he is missing. So, while he might be left out against Japan, he should surely be there, alongside the elder Gray against South Africa, because they are always good scrummagers, and Australia because they usually aren’t. We will need to hold our own against the Springboks in the scrum and should look to dominate Australia there.

The back row poses problems of balance as much as of personnel. The skilful Chris Fusaro must surely be introduced to the international scene this autumn; Scottish teams nearly always do best with a natural seven. Ross Rennie may be our best in that position but is sadly injury-prone. So Fusaro must be given the experience sooner rather than later. Brown can play in any of the back-row position, but is best at six, where there is competition from Alasdair Strokosch, while the resurgent David Denton competes with Johnnie Beattie at eight.

Tough choices, but the kind of choices a coach surely likes to have; the kind of choices, one might add, which offer a stiff test of the coach’s judgement. From what we have learned of Johnson, the biggest surprise would be if he didn’t surprise us. Let us hope that whatever he pulls from his hat doesn’t turn out to be a rabbit.