Iain Morrison: Outsiders to remain on the outside

Mike Cusack, pictured, Damien Hoyland and Alan Dell, and Rory Hughes, have raised a few eyebrows at their inclusion in Vern Cotter's 'long squad'. Photographs: SNS/SRU
Mike Cusack, pictured, Damien Hoyland and Alan Dell, and Rory Hughes, have raised a few eyebrows at their inclusion in Vern Cotter's 'long squad'. Photographs: SNS/SRU
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VERN COTTER casts his net wide but some of the fish he has landed may prove to be small fry come game time, writes Iain Morrison

I read somewhere that English rugby’s extensive league system is the biggest in any sport in any country where a club can climb all the way from the bottom (Eastern Counties Regional Division Four, since you ask) to the Aviva Premiership. With 12 separate levels of competition between the top of the tree and the tips of the grass roots game, it may even be true.

Like all sports, rugby is layered and, while some players move serenely up through the strata with relative ease, most need time to acclimatise at each level, a little like a mountaineer on Everest and, like our climber, the steps only get harder the higher you go.

Which is why Vern Cotter’s inclusion of numerous uncapped players in the World Cup squad was such a surprise. If the Scottish backs wrong-foot the opposition with the same skill that the Kiwi coach did to the pundits last week then Mark Dodson’s bold prediction of World Cup glory might just come good.

Of the seven uncapped players, the two South African projects are a case apart, because WP Nel has only just qualified for Scotland and Josh Strauss will do so just days before Scotland’s opener against Japan. They couldn’t have been capped before now.

The barrel-chested Mike Cusack is a one-off. He qualified for Scotland some time ago but a long illness kept him out of the game for the best part of two years and only this season has he been able to play a walk-on role in Glasgow Warriors’ season.

Cusack looks like an old-school prop from the amateur era and not in a good way. He never raised much of a gallop around the park but at his best he dropped anchor in the set scrum. He needs matches, lots of them, to return to full fitness but he has enjoyed just four starts all season for Glasgow, three in the league and one against Bath in Europe where he had his backside felt by England’s David Wilson. He is a long way off being the foundation stone he once was.

The other four uncapped players were an even bigger surprise, although Cotter has championed Hugh Blake from the start. These four are not only untried at Test level, they are uniformly unloved by their pro-teams. They have watched far more professional rugby than they have played this season, which is no kind of preparation for a Rugby World Cup.

Loosehead prop Alan Dell won one start for Edinburgh in the league and another one in the Challenge Cup. Winger Damien Hoyland has one Edinburgh start to his name to back up his experience with Scotland Sevens. Rory Hughes has earned one start for Glasgow all season (and three appearances off the bench) despite rival winger Sean Maitland missing a huge chunk of the season.

When quizzed about Hughes’ lack of game time, Cotter cited the winger’s performance for a combined Edinburgh/Glasgow side that took on the national Under-20s a few weeks back. I don’t know exactly where that “Glasburgh XV” comes in rugby’s pecking order but it isn’t within hailing distance of the summit.

That spot is occupied by the Rugby World Cup, with the Six Nations just below it, at least for Europe’s finest. Beneath that, because international rugby is far from uniform in quality or intensity, come the autumn Tests and behind them the summer tour. Below that is the European Champions Cup, although the best of its games are played at a higher intensity than a poor international match, and the play-offs sit above the pool games in intensity. Below the Champions Cup is the Guinness Pro12, in which the play-offs and various derby matches again rank one rung higher than the regular season fixtures.

Cotter has selected four players whose regular rugby is many, so many, steps below the World Cup intensity that they will have difficulty imagining the collisions come the Big Bang, never mind winning them. We normally worry about uncapped players being asked to step up to World Cup standards, now we are worrying about players almost uncapped at pro-team level being fed to the furnace. “We don’t have massive amounts of depth,” Cotter offered by way of explanation. “But these players have shown potential, and we really want to have a look at them.

“When it comes down to it and the dust has settled after those three pre-season [warm-up] games and we’ve done our preparation and explored and developed as best we can, we’ll make the best decisions for the best team.

“I’m not going to say those [uncapped] players are not going to make it now. They might be exceptional. And after two games against Ireland and Italy they might be the best players that have come through.

“What we’re hoping to do is get through our preparation, get through our four games with limited injuries. Now if we get injuries and those players are performing well and put their hands up, they will be players that could potentially become involved.”

Elsewhere, the Kiwi coach stated that he might be tempted to appoint not one but two World Cup captains, although exactly how it would work was not obvious and one of them is unlikely to be Strauss. He might make a decent fist of things but appointing Strauss as Scotland skipper would only highlight the controversial practice of “project players” all over again. Not that Cotter phased it quite like that: “He will have a leadership role within the group…but as an official captain, it may be a bit much.”

“Co-captaincy,” replied the coach when asked about the twin skippers. “There are various scenarios, there is either two in the team or one in the team or none in the team so, what we see as one of our challenges, the first two games have three days apart so how do we negotiate that and what is the best form of preparing and having the team prepared for those two games?”

It appears that two captains may be needed for twin squads during the four warm-up matches. One squad will be preparing for a game while the other is preparing for the World Cup.

Cotter also revealed that the Scots would train at altitude in the Alps ahead of the World Cup, working with the French special forces, something he used to do with Clermont.

“I got the idea off Julien Bonnaire who was with the French team in 2007 and he said it was the best thing that they had done, with the land-based [French forces]. And with Clermont we used the Navy Seal equivalents.

“They’ll have fun. They will, I promise you.”

You have to hope so. With four warm-up matches over four weeks quickly followed by a minimum of four, full-blooded World Cup games in just 24 days, it may be the last “fun” the players have for a while.