Ben Vellacott backed to push for a Scotland place if he can maintain current form

He is only two games into his Edinburgh career but Ben Vellacott has already made a sizeable contribution, winning player of the match awards in both the opening day win over Scarlets and the narrow defeat by Benetton on Saturday.

Scrum-half Ben Vellacott has been named player of the match in each of Edinburgh's first two URC fixtures. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

On current form, Mike Blair thinks he will be pushing for a place in the Scotland squad, although he is quick to point out that scrum-half is a position of strength for the national team.

The coach’s more immediate concern is how Vellacott shapes up for Edinburgh. Blair wants his team to play at tempo and the 26-year-old’s electric pace is instrumental in this, but there is more to his game than just speed and the coach has been impressed by other aspects of the former Gloucester and Wasps player’s contribution.

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“The pleasing thing with Ben is he’s not been a one-trick pony,” said Blair. “He’s been able to play at tempo but he’s shown a really good organisation as well.

“He’s an exceptional player. Give him front-foot ball and he’s going to tear the opposition apart.”

He scored two good tries in the agonising last-gasp loss in Treviso at the weekend and they both stemmed from the player’s speed of thought. For the first, he noticed Benetton had switched off on their own 22 and steamed through the gap. The second was a sniper’s effort from the bottom of a ruck.

A former Scotland under-20 cap, Vellacott had England sniffing around him during his days in the Premiership. Eddie Jones called him into a training squad in 2018 but he never played for the Red Rose and remains eligible for both countries.

Born in Chertsey, Surrey, Vellacott’s mother is from Peterhead and the decision in the summer to leave Wasps and head north was made with one eye on a Scotland cap.

Ben Vellacott played for Scotland Under-20s but remains uncapped at full Test level. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

Blair, who was in interim charge of the national side in June, called up the scrum-half after a spate of Covid positives left him short but the situation worsened and Scotland’s entire summer programme had to be abandoned.

Gregor Townsend, back at the reins after his stint with the Lions, will name his squad for the Autumn Nations Series later this month. Blair thinks Vellacott will soon be knocking on the door of the national team but knows there is stiff competition at 9, with Lions first pick Ali Price in the vanguard and his Glasgow Warriors team-mates George Horne and Jamie Dobie also in the queue.

“I think Scotland have strong scrum-halves,” said Blair. “George and Ali probably have a fair bit in the bank, but the way that Ben is going, if he can continue to show this consistency, he’ll start pushing those two, along with Jamie Dobie and Scott Steele.

“He’s someone we watched nationally for a few seasons. He had a bad knee injury and didn’t get a huge amount of rugby. I was in touch with him a couple of years ago and gave him a bit of feedback on a few different things.”

Mike Blair was left frustrated by the manner of the defeat in Treviso but also took positives from Edinburgh's performance. Picture: Paul Devlin/SNS

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The emotions were still a little raw for Blair on Monday as he reflected on the nature of Saturday’s 28-27 defeat in Italy. A drop-goal in the fifth minute of injury time by teenager Leonardo Marin won the game for Benetton and Edinburgh were left only with two bonus points - scant reward from a game in which they outscored the home side by four tries to three.

“We had a team meeting and were frustrated,” admitted the coach. “We talked about shooting ourselves in the foot. But there was a load of positive stuff too so it was a positive meeting about the good things that we’ve been doing. But it was also a reflection that we can’t give the opposition easy ins to the game through our basic errors, whether that’s discipline or skill-based stuff.

“After 77 minutes [while leading 27-25] we kicked the ball out on the full, and 79 minutes 30 second we’ve got a lineout on their 22 to win the game. So you look back and of course you’re frustrated with how it turned out. But, as I said to the guys, it’s not as if these are difficult things to fix. We can turn these around pretty quickly. So hold on the positives that we’ve shown in the past couple of weeks and tighten up a couple of things and we’re in a good place.”

Edinburgh now have back-to-back home games against South African opposition, with Stormers first up this Saturday followed by the Bulls seven days later.

Both sides have lost their opening two games in the United Rugby Championship but Blair was impressed by the Stormers’ performance against Munster in Limerick at the weekend.

The visitors led 15-0 and had a try disallowed, but the host came back into the game with a try just before half-time and went on to win 34-18.

“Stormers had an excellent first 37 minutes or so against Munster and not many teams go there and are 15 points up near half-time. Munster got back into it through their driving game but Stormers when they hit their straps are a difficult team to stop.”

There are some notable absentees in their squad, with props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe and scrum-half Herschel Jantjies all on international duty. Blair thinks the Stormers will be hardened by two tough games in Europe but is happy enough that they will be without their Springboks.

“Yeah, it’s a better time to be playing them now! But we’ve still got a couple of guys to get back as well who aren’t quite fit and available; Emiliano [Boffelli], Mesu [Kunavula], Nick Haining, Ben Toolis and Glen Young. So we’re missing some too.

“Sometimes, though, when you play a team without internationals in it it’s actually harder as the other guys are hungrier to show what they can do. So we’re expecting another tough game.”

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