ANDY Farrell, England’s assistant coach, made a very odd remark on Thursday. Explaining why Danny Cipriani had been left out of the World Cup squad, and Sam Burgess included, he said: “We don’t deal in perception. If we did that, we’d become blinkered. You have to go on facts.”
I call this “odd” because, ultimately, all selection is a matter of perception. There are facts, of course. Statistics are facts, but they need to be interpreted. Actually the English selection makes nonsense of Farrell’s words. The fact is that Sam Burgess has played only a few games of rugby union, and that the coaches at his club, Bath, see him as a back-row forward rather than a centre, a 6 not a 12. It’s the perception that he may come off at inside centre that has persuaded Stuart Lancaster and Farrell to pick him instead of the well-tried Luther Burrell. The facts support Burrell; perception has inclined Lancaster to pick Burgess.
All selection is in the end a matter of opinion, which is to say perception. It’s likely that Vern Cotter will name Josh Strauss and WP Nel in his squad. Since neither has, for obvious reasons, played international rugby, this is a leap in the dark. But the perception is that both can succeed in making the step up from the club to the international game. You can’t tell in advance whether any player will do manage to do this.
Conversely, take the case of Roddy Grant. The fact is that week-in week-out, for several seasons now, he has played outstandingly well for Edinburgh. Yet he has never been selected for Scotland. One must presume that Vern Cotter, like his predecessors Scott Johnson and Andy Robinson, sees him as a very fine club player who wouldn’t repeat club form at international level. This is a matter of perception. Some of us may indeed call it “blinkered”. Yet it’s the way teams are selected. The coach makes a judgment, and, no matter how much statistical evidence is available, it’s a hunch in the end. Sir Clive Woodward says that selection is the most important part of a coach’s job; it’s also the most difficult.
Today anyway something that probably resembles the first-choice Scotland team takes the field against Italy. We may look therefore for something a good deal better, and certainly less lacklustre, than the performance in Turin last week, when Scotland looked very one-paced, and were mastered by the Italians at the breakdown. A lot will depend on the ability of the new back row, Ryan Wilson, David Denton and John Barclay, to take control of that area of the game. If they manage to put the team on the front foot, there is enough talent behind the scrum to allow the backs to sparkle. On the other hand, if Greig Laidlaw has to dig the ball out as often as Sam Hidalgo-Clyne had to do in Turin, Scotland are not likely to be able to play the fast, free-flowing game that they aspire to. It’s fair to remember also that Stuart Hogg, the centres and the halves will all be playing their first match for three months.
Though Cotter says that “lots of places in the squad are still up for grabs”, I would be surprised, and indeed a bit dismayed, if he hadn’t already pencilled in some 29 of the 31 names – and I would be more than a bit surprised if there are any real surprises. The biggest surprise came months ago when he decided to jettison Kelly Brown, whom many of us would have had as our World Cup captain. I hope this isn’t a decision that will come back to haunt him. Successful World Cup teams have always had a foundation of experience – the relative absence of which in Lancaster’s England squad is disturbing a good many people south of the border down Twickenham way.
Today’s game should be played as a real international rather than as a trial. You can tell it’s the former if Laidlaw decides to kick for goal if Scotland get a penalty within his range. There are of course times when a quickly-taken tap penalty or a kick to the five-metre line may be the best option. More often it makes sense to “take the points”, especially in the first half. That’s what the All Blacks usually do – even though they are better at scoring tries than almost anybody else. Of course, if you take the points, it then becomes essential that you field, and clear, the restart – something that Scotland have not been good at doing consistently for a long time now.
The World Cup is on our minds, but the club season also kicks off here today. My own club, Selkirk, are back in the top flight, and, for us, the question is whether we can still play the free-flowing game that gave us a 100 per cent record in the National League last season. Our old rivals, Gala, come to Philiphaugh this afternoon. There couldn’t be a more welcome start, nor many more demanding ones, however.