Andy Robinson backs Jackson and Gray to seize their chance

RICHIE Gray is on the verge of making a full Scotland debut less than a year after leading the national under-20s in what would prove to be a major shot in the arm for the SRU's development process.

• Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, is excited by the options available to him after naming a 30-man squad for the opening two Six Nations games against France and Wales. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Scottish rugby's ability to turn promising teenage talent into competitive Test players in the professional era has been roundly criticised and is now the subject of an internal review led by Graham Lowe, the New Zealander recently appointed as director of performance rugby at the SRU.

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However, yesterday's selection of 20-year-old Gray and Ruaridh Jackson, the 21-year-old stand-off, is breaking the mould. Jackson has suffered with injury and a certain first cap was lost in the autumn when he suffered a dislocated shoulder in his first game for Glasgow this season, and after a game-and-a-half back for his club he is already pushing Phil Godman and Dan Parks for a place in the Six Nations squads against France and Wales.

Gray, similarly, has experienced figures in Nathan Hines, Alastair Kellock and Jim Hamilton ahead of him in his quest for a full international debut, but Robinson was effusive in his praise of the youngsters yesterday.

"Ruaridh would have been involved in the autumn had he not been injured, and I've been very impressed with the way Richie has been performing for Glasgow," said the coach.

"I spoke to Sean Lineen about him (Gray] and he said he was the key member of the pack last weekend, where he rolled up his sleeves like an old player that had been playing for years and made sure that Glasgow beat the Dragons, and that mentality is why he has got into the position he has at such a young age, and I look forward to working with him.

"Richie was unlucky not to be involved in the autumn. The elbow injury he picked up inhibited him a bit, but part of the process (in the autumn] was to involve him in the international set-up, get a taste for it and see what it was about. If he was to continue his form, the plan was to involve him in the Six Nations, and it's been great to see what he has been doing. He is still 20 and to move from the under-20s into the Scotland squad in that short space of time is testament to how he has performed, the size he is and his ability to physically dominate players, and the attitude he has shown in getting his place in the Glasgow team.

"I congratulate both of them and I'm pleased because there is real competition for places. The quality of the squad for me is clear when I look at some of the players left out. Leaving out players like Ben Cairns and Nikki Walker was tough, guys who are very good players, and Scott MacLeod too.

"But what I wanted to do with these games was focus on the France and Wales games. I had to make a number of tough decisions now so that I could mould the team over the next two weeks to be able to deliver against France. Our focus is on those two games and anybody who wants to ask me about England will not get an answer today – our focus is all on France and Wales, and the team to perform in those two games." The return to fitness of prop Alasdair Dickinson at Gloucester has pleased the coach and he is a player Robinson rates highly, while he insisted Jim Hamilton and the knowledge the lock possesses were key to his development of the current squad.

He still has the dilemma of who to play at stand-off and while keen to shift the responsibility for driving Scotland's attack off the shoulders of one man, he recognises that the pivotal No10 remains crucial to his bid to make Scotland a more threatening side.

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"We have three good fly-halves," he said. "Ruaridh is young, has a lot of learning to do, is athletic, goes to the line, has a very good head on his shoulders, good passing game to bring people into the game, and he showed against France 'A' in the final of the IRB Nations Cup that he can deliver under pressure, and that's what is important.

"I have worked with Phil for a number of years and he's a talented fly-half. He brings other people into the game, has outstanding passing skills and as a runner is quicker than some flankers would think in his ability to scuttle past players.

"He has a good understanding of the game and, against Australia and Fiji in the autumn internationals, he controlled the game well. In Dan you have got a real competitor and a leader. He contributes well in the games, good passing skills, tactical awareness of how to get the scoreboard ticking over and he can dominate territory with his kicking game. So you have a mixture there of fly-halves."

Chris Paterson is still also viewed as cover for stand-off, while, though not named yesterday, full-back Rory Lamont will re-join the squad if he comes through his comeback game for Toulon next Wednesday.

There is invariably an injury headache for Scotland coaches in some area of the team and this year it is the back row, which until recently seemed more competitive than for many years. Now, however, Jason White, the former captain, is out with a broken leg, Allister Hogg, another experienced campaigner, has undergone surgery on a hip injury, No8 Richie Vernon been struck down with glandular fever and Simon Taylor remains unavailable and injured. Blindside flanker Alasdair Strokosch was helped off during Gloucester's win over Biarritz at the weekend, but Robinson is hopeful that he will recover in time to face France.

"Having had a number of back row forwards available, suddenly that area gets put under a bit of pressure, but we have to be able to deal with that and I will be considering Nathan Hines as a six (blindside flanker] as well as a lock."

He admitted that he already knew the make-up of his starting XV for the opening match, and it sounds likely that most positions will be filled by players who helped him claim an historic first win over Australia.

"The selection of the team will be based around the players that played well in the autumn, current form and will obviously take into account injuries," he added. "What players did in the autumn is an important part of this selection process."