Allan Massie: Cotter freshening up Scotland squad

Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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VERN Cotter is putting his own stamp on the Scotland squad. No surprise there; it’s what he was hired to do.

New coaches, like new football managers, have their own ideas, and this frequently means a clearout of established players. So there is no place for Chris Cusiter, Max Evans, Kelly Brown, Johnnie Beattie or John Barclay in Cotter’s Six Nations training squad. They have all served Scotland well over many years. Their international longevity may be the reason Cotter has discarded them. We all know that our Six Nations record over the last ten years has been poor; we have only once won three matches in the tournament. It may be that Cotter has concluded that too many players have become inured to defeat; losing habits are hard to break.

Admittedly, he has retained a number of players who might be considered every bit as accustomed to losing: Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Alasdair Dickinson and Sean Lamont have all had much more experience of defeat than victory. You might say they are as lucky not to be on the outside looking in as Cusiter, Brown & Co are unfortunate to be in that position. It’s not as if the discards have been playing badly. Cusiter had a very good game for Sale against Clermont Auvergne last week. Brown has been shining for the successful Saracens side, and Welsh journalists have been raving over Barclay’s performances for the Scarlets. It can’t really be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, for Jim Hamilton, Brown’s team-mate at Saracens, is in the squad, and so are Richie Gray and Alasdair Strokosch, who both play their club rugby in France – Strokosch for a club (Perpignan) which is no longer in the Top 14.

Being left out now doesn’t mean that these players’ international careers are over. Indeed, Cusiter’s old rival, Mike Blair, who has retired from international rugby, suggested on Wednesday that if Greig Laidlaw happened to be injured playing for Gloucester this weekend, Cusiter might well leap-frog over Henry Pyrgos and young Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to start our opening match in Paris.

The other talking point is the inclusion of the very recent arrival from New Zealand, Hugh Blake, given that he hasn’t yet played even part of a match for Edinburgh. It’s likely that he is in the squad principally for the experience, but if he was to start against France it would be all too reminiscent of the Brendan Laney story. Laney’s inclusion in the Scotland XV almost as soon as he stepped off the plane from New Zealand did neither the team nor the player himself any good. He played some wonderful rugby for Edinburgh but scarcely ever reproduced that form for Scotland, and I’ve always thought the circumstances in which he gained his first cap were at least partly responsible.

One English journalist declared that the inclusion of Blake in the Scotland squad, and Gareth Anscombe, another recent arrival from the southern hemisphere, in the Welsh one, was the sort of thing that threatened to make nonsense of international rugby. Admittedly he qualified this by remarking that England too had made some pretty dodgy selections, as indeed have France and Italy. Certainly the IRB should revise the criterion for qualifying by residency: three years, the present term, is ridiculously short. He also argued – I think correctly – that playing international age-group rugby should determine a player’s national qualification once and for all.

Then we have the grandparent rule, from which Scotland have benefited. My own view is that a single grandparent shouldn’t be enough; it makes you at most a quarter Scottish. I think you should require two – which incidentally young Hugh Blake apparently has.

It’s clear that there are now far too many players representing a country under a flag of convenience, and that the criteria for qualification need to be revised. Doubling the residential qualification to six years and doubling the number of grandparents needed would be a start.

It’s true, as I’ve remarked in this column before, that we were all easy-going about what constituted a legitimate qualification in the old amateur days. Doug Keller, for example, toured with the 1947-48 Wallabies, remained in London to complete his medical studies, joined London Scottish, and played seven times for Scotland in 1949-50, even captaining the team. England regularly selected Rhodes Scholars studying at Oxford. One was the great New Zealand batsman, Martin Donnelly. Another, Clive van Ryneveld, later captained his native South Africa at cricket.

But there was one very important difference then. In the amateur days, nobody went out and bought a team. Now in the professional era, rugby clubs may recruit worldwide. So it’s quite conceivable that a so-called national team might soon be at least half composed of imports signed when little more than boys by ambitious clubs and qualifying to play for their country of residence in a ridiculously short time. Football fans don’t seem to mind where their club’s players come from, but would Twickenham or Murrayfield be full if the England team contained only half-a-dozen Englishmen and the Scotland team only a similar number of genuine Scots?