Allan Massie: Alex Dunbar’s Brive encounter is a flight of French fancy

Alex Dunbar is joining Brive in the French Top 14. Picture: Bruce White/SNS
Alex Dunbar is joining Brive in the French Top 14. Picture: Bruce White/SNS
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It is the time of year when most of the news is about things off the field. Yesterday one learned that John Jeffrey has just been appointed chairman of the Six Nations Committee,on which he has served for a number of years, as indeed on World Rugby and the SRU itself also. JJ has come a long way into the ranks of the Great and Good since, along with his mate Finlay Calder, he was described as a “scavenger” by England’s coach, Geoff Cooke. A long way also from that night when he and England’s mighty No 8 Dean Richards indulged in some passing practice up and down North Bridge with the Calcutta Cup instead of a rugby ball. I don’t really know what the remit and powers of the chair of the Six Nations Committee may be, but I trust that JJ will greet proposals for change with a healthy Borders scepticism, offering our characteristic defence of the status quo: “it’s aye been”.

Yesterday there was also a press release from Murrayfield informing us that more than 50,000 tickets have already been sold for the World Cup warm-up match against France on Saturday 24 August. This reflects not only the high level of expectation this Scotland team has aroused, but also some intelligent pricing of tickets – £10 for under-18s and a mere £1 for under-12s (if accompanied by an adult). This is especially welcome because one has often thought that, on account of the high price of tickets, far fewer boys and girls now have the chance to watch Scotland except on television than was the case 30 or 40 years ago. So they miss out on so much of the experience of a day at Murrayfield, an experience which was such a happy part of one’s youth.

More pleasing news came with the announcement that Alex Dunbar will be joining Brive to play in the Top 14. A couple of years ago he was an established and indeed vital member of the Scotland XV, either at 12 or 13. A succession of injuries, and a couple of worrying concussions, derailed his career,and Dave Rennie deemed him surplus to requirements at Glasgow, a club admittedly not short of centre three-quarters. Assuming that the doctors have given him a clean bill of health, especially as regards the concussion question, this move looks like a good opportunity to revive his career. He is certainly the sort of intelligent and hard-running centre who should flourish in France.

Over the years, at least since the days when Gregor Townsend himself went adventuring in France, clubs there have been alert to the qualities of Scottish players, more alert than, let us say, Lions selectors. At present of course we have Richie Gray at Toulouse (after a spell at Castres) and Finn Russell in Paris with Racing 92, a club that former Edinburgh scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is also joining on, initially anyway, a short-term contract.

Not surprisingly, in view of our usual, or traditional, strength in the position, Scottish scrum-halves have been especially in demand. Greig Laidlaw is at Clermont-Auvergne, sharing the duties with the French international Morgan Parra. But before him Mike Blair had a spell with Brive, Chris Cusiter one with Perpignan, and Bryan Redpath a couple of seasons with Narbonne.

Actually you could construct something like a pretty good imaginary Scotland XV out of internationalists who have at some point in their career played for French clubs in the Top 14. You could start off with Hugo Southwell (Stade Francais) at 15 and have Tony Stanger (Grenoble) and Rory Lamont (Toulon) on the wings. James McLaren (Bordeaux-Begles), Max Evans (Castres) and now Alex Dunbar in the centre. Then either Finn or Gregor at stand-off, though probably one would shift to centre; and of course a rich choice at scrum-half.

Of the forwards jostling for position, Richie Gray might partner Nathan Hines, whose wanderings took him to Perpignan and Clermont-Auvergne, as well as Leinster. Simon Taylor played a couple of seasons for Stade Francais and Jason White three for Clermont-Auvergne. Alasdair Strokosch played for Perpignan and Johnnie Beattie for Montpellier. Front-row forwards seem in surprisingly short supply, though Gordon McIlwham played for Bordeaux-Begles and Euan Murray had a brief spell with Agen.

I can’t think of a hooker, but no doubt someone can happen on one lurking somewhere. I’ve probably missed out quite a few players, but have still assembled what looks like a pretty good squad, enough to show the Auld Alliance is in good shape. Indeed, if one could have that squad all in good shape at the peak of their career , you might have a Six Nations championship-winning side, even a Grand Slam one. Imaginary XVs are often unbeatable.