Five headaches for Scotland coach Vern Cotter

Injury problems are mounting up for the Scotland squad.
Henry Pyrgos in action for Scotland.Henry Pyrgos in action for Scotland.
Henry Pyrgos in action for Scotland.

1 Who replaces Greig Laidlaw as scrum-half?

The candidates list is not long: Ali Price or Henry Pyrgos. The latter brings leadership, experience and an excellent kicking game from hand. The former is a livewire and, facing the speedy Rhys Webb of Wales who scored the last time he visited Murrayfield, that must come into consideration.

Price boasts the better pass and, if Cotter wants to stick to his high-tempo style, that speedy service buys fly-half Finn Russell an extra split second, which can make a world of difference.

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But the spine of this Scottish team – 2, 8, 9 and 10 – is short of experience, presuming Fraser Brown recovers from his knock and starts ahead of Ross Ford.

Verdict: If Cotter wants to replace like for like then Pyrgos, pictured below, should leapfrog Price into the starting shirt to help Russell navigate his way through the match, with the younger man making an impact off the bench.

2 Who replaces Greig Laidlaw as skipper?

This is more a case of who doesn’t replace Laidlaw and the answer to that question, please Lord, is Jonny Gray. The big lock has enough on his plate calling lineouts, tackling everything that moves and doing relentless heavy lifting, without having to worry about becoming Facebook friends with the referee.

John Barclay took over from Laidlaw in Paris and seemed to strike up a rapport with the referee there. He has the experience, intelligence and the respect of the players to do the job. Barclay injured his shoulder against France and wasn’t picked to start against Ireland but, if he is fit, Scotland surely need all the breakdown specialists they can find against the twin threats of Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton.

Elsewhere Fraser Brown or Ryan Wilson, if they are passed fit, or even Henry Pyrgos could all fill Laidlaw’s boots.

Verdict: If Barclay is fit and starts, which looks likely, then the veteran should get the job.

3 Does he change the centre combo?

Duncan Taylor was the revelation of last season’s Six Nations, scoring two brilliant solo tries and making that covering tackle on Wales wing Tom James in Cardiff to keep Scotland in the hunt but he has missed Saracens’ past few outings, including Friday’s loss to Gloucester, with the after- effects of a head injury he received on 7 January against Exeter. Cotter simply can’t pick him with 17 minutes of rugby to his name this year. In that same Friday match Matt Scott probably didn’t do quite enough to force his way into the reckoning.

Alex Dunbar missed five tackles against Ireland but made amends against France with three priceless turnovers. His physicality is badly needed in what is otherwise a slight back division.

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Verdict: Had he played on Friday and emerged unscathed, Taylor would have had every chance of making the Scotland squad to play Wales... but not now.

4 Who does Cotter pick at prop?

It’s a problem right enough, no matter what sort of gloss the Scotland camp try to put on it. Wales, England and Italy are all salivating in anticipation of a set scrum against the Scots.

They conceded three straight arm penalties at the set scrum in the opening half against Ireland and suffered another spanking in Paris, where Allan Dell was so ground down that he managed just two tackles (and missed a third). Much of the trouble emanated from the loosehead but Zander Fagerson also felt the squeeze from time to time, although the youngster will almost certainly start.

Cotter has the option of going with the devil he knows, hurrying Ally Dickinson back into the firing line in the hope that he can hold it all together despite a lack of game time, or opt for a left-field choice such as Bristol’s Kyle Traynor or Edinburgh’s Jack Cosgrove, who had Leinster’s Mike Ross on the back foot on Friday night.

Verdict: Wales are not the scrummaging force that France are and, unless Dickinson is straining at the leash, Cotter will probably keep faith with Dell and Fagerson and trust in the power of prayer.

5 Who will replace Josh Strauss at eight?

The obvious answer is no one because the South African is in a league of his own when it comes to carrying the game to the opposition. He carried the ball 16 times in Paris – the next highest figure belonged to Richie Gray with ten – and he made an admirable 47 metres against some of the biggest men in the game, three-and-a-half times more than any other forward (Gray snr again, with 13 metres).

Ryan Wilson is a different sort of player, more upright and easier to stop than Strauss but he still looks like the most likely candidate to start in between Hamish Watson and John Barclay, who can also play eight.

However David Denton is back into the thick of things with Bath. He played at blindside against Quins yesterday afternoon, his third appearance since returning from a hamstring injury.

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Verdict: With John Hardie, Barclay and Wilson all recovering from injuries, the composition of the back row will depend upon who is fit on the day, but Denton could come into the equation to rectify Scotland’s lack of carriers.