GRANT Gilchrist is looking forward to an honour which is “as good as you can get” in rugby when he captains Scotland at home for the first time next month.
The Edinburgh lock, named yesterday in a 33-man squad for the three Autumn Tests, led the national side twice on tour last summer – in the win over Argentina, Scotland’s first opponents at Murrayfield, and their last match, the loss to South Africa.
There is no room in Vern Cotter’s squad for former skipper Kelly Brown, or for the experienced Jim Hamilton, Max Evans and John Barclay. Centre Mark Bennett is the only uncapped player, and one of 17 Glasgow Warriors to be selected, with in-form stand-off Finn Russell among them.
Gilchrist, who made his debut in Scotland’s loss to France in the 2013 Six Nations, did not feature at all in the 2014 tournament, when Scott Johnson was still in charge. With eight caps to date, he is now set to take his total into double figures when Scotland meet the Pumas, New Zealand and Tonga over three consecutive Saturdays in November.
“Leading Scotland out at Murrayfield is as good as you can get, and certainly I can’t wait for the first Test,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s something that you dream of as a kid, captaining your country, and it’s something that I’m really passionate about.
“It’s a massive honour and something that I’m really proud of. I want to make sure that I’m at my best and leading the team as best I can.”
While Cotter views Gilchrist as a born leader, the second-row was only made vice-captain at Edinburgh by coach Alan Solomons, and thinks he has steadily matured into a leadership role.
“In Edinburgh, the way Alan’s run it is that me and Mike Coman share most of the duties anyway,” he explained. “I think I’ve been taking on a lot of extra responsibility with Edinburgh this season, even compared to last season when I was calling lineouts and leading within the team. Alan said he thought Mike had more experience and would be there more often, so that was his decision. I’m just delighted to be named as captain for Scotland.
“There’s a lot of competition in my position. I was trying to do everything I could to be in the team, and that won’t change.
“I’ll play as best I can this weekend and in the lead-up to the Tests to make sure that happens.
“I’ve had a lot of growth. It didn’t click overnight – it was a lot of years of help from guys; people like Sean Cox, who did a lot of help with me with
Edinburgh, and big Jim [Hamilton] as well over the summer and previous Scotland camps when I haven’t featured at all but have been around. I’ve learned a lot from these guys and now I have the confidence to call lineouts and lead.
“It’s something that feels pretty natural to me.”
While Solomons opted for New Zealander Coman to lead Edinburgh, Cotter is confident that Gilchrist can fulfil the role well at national level.
“I think leaders are born, and he is a born leader,” the coach said. “I quickly saw it wasn’t just lineouts he was competent at calling. He’s a good leader. Grant was with us on the summer tour and that’s why I feel he can be captain.
“Alan was probably looking at [the fact] that he might not have been available [to Edinburgh] during November and the Six Nations.”
Asked why he had omitted Brown, Cotter included the Saracens back row in a group of four players he deemed unfortunate to have been omitted. “Kelly, Jim Hamilton, Peter Horne, Max Evans – very tough decisions. A lot of good people and good players have missed out. It goes to show the competition for places, especially at loose forwards.
“All we can say to the players that have missed out is that they’re one step away from being called back through injury.
“All they can do is prepare themselves as best as possible if we do get an injury. You never know.
“When they get the call-up they’ll have to play particularly well and put pressure on to make sure of selection next time.
“We looked at John [Barclay]. We’ve gone for players who’ve been playing well. Chris Fusaro has been playing well, Hamish Watson” – one of three “invited to train with the squad” – “has been playing well.
“It was tough for John as well. We’re aware of what he’s been doing.
“We’ve been following him. We had to make some tough calls over good people with the players who have missed out.”
Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown will challenge Ross Ford and Scott Lawson for the No 2 jersey, but there is no place in the squad for his team-mates Pat McArthur and Dougie Hall.
In the backs, Russell and Tom Heathcote are vying with Duncan Weir to be the starting stand-off, with Cotter insisting that regular domestic selection would not determine his choice.
“We get time with the players – who we are playing, who we want to play.
“I don’t think if Duncan plays every week we wouldn’t play Finn or Tom. We’re looking at game time and what we’re trying to develop.
“Those players are a bit different as well. What is the most important thing for our nines and tens is running the game.”
Bennett, who scored two tries in Glasgow’s Champions Cup win over Bath on Saturday, looks set to make his debut against Argentina, although it may have to be off the bench.
“I’ve known Mark for a number of years, because he came to Clermont,” said Cotter, who was head coach at the French club until this summer.
“He’s been very patient and came back from a serious injury, and if you look at his performance over the weekend he’s what we’re looking for.
“We’re looking for people who make line-breaks, people who have a go. It’s brilliant what he’s done.
“His career is progressing well and he listens, asks questions.
“We’re excited he has done this work and gets a deserved selection.”
SCOTLAND AUTUMN INTERNATIONAL SQUAD
Full Scotland squad: A Ashe (Glasgow), J Beattie (Castres), F Brown (Glasgow), B Cowan, G Cross (both London Irish), A Dickinson, R Ford (both Edinburgh), C Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh, captain), R Harley, J Gray (both Glasgow Warriors), R Gray (Castres), S Lawson (Newcastle), K Low (London Irish), E Murray, G Reid (both Glasgow) A Strokosch (Perpignan), T Swinson (Glasgow), M Bennett (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Sale), A Dunbar (Glasgow), D Fife, T Heathcote (both Edinburgh), S Hogg (Glasgow), G Laidlaw (Gloucester), S Lamont, S Maitland, F Russell, H Pyrgos, T Seymour (all Glasgow), D Taylor (Saracens), T Visser (Edinburgh), D Weir (Glasgow).