SCOTLAND coach Cotter must pick his 31-man World Cup squad wisely, writes Iain Morrison
Every selection a coach makes is a battle between picking players who can fulfil his team’s ambitions and mixing them with others who can stop the opposition in their tracks. Get that right and the remaining dominoes are lined up nicely.
Some players will be smiling tomorrow when they are given the news, others will emerge from the meeting thin-lipped, although they will doubtless make the right noises in public. Even those who are overlooked may get their day in the sun, because with World Cup injuries parked alongside death and taxes as a sure thing some of the rejected players will almost certainly feature. After all, Stephen Donald famously cut short his fishing trip to win the last World Cup for New Zealand.
Releasing seven players last week made the task of guessing the final squad a little easier for us pundits, and the fact that Cotter only has three scrum-halves (Chris Cuister has been with Sale Sharks all this time) and three hookers simplifies things even more...well, perhaps.
Might two be enough? Australian coach Michael Cheika thinks so and was lambasted for taking a risk but, if you scratch the surface, there is almost no risk involved. World Cup rules allow for injury replacements so, by taking the sensible step of having a third Australian hooker in the UK (but not in the team hotel) for the duration of the World Cup, Cheika will have given his squad more depth in the outside backs while covering his backside in an emergency.
In fact the Aussie is probably banking on an injury to someone because his original two hookers may need a little R&R after the opening three ties. Even if no one suffers a serious knock you suspect that Cheika could still arrange it. It is perhaps twisting the spirit of the rules but, with Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor both doubtful for the start of the tournament but hopeful for the latter stages, might Vern Cotter be tempted to do something similar?
“I don’t know yet,” came the coach’s response, indicating that the thought had crossed his mind. “There are two different strategies. You either name them (injured players) or you don’t. You can bring players in if they are fit and there is an injury.”
The overriding consideration clouding all selection discussions is the acknowledgement that Scotland lacked power in the Six Nations and without that precious commodity the team can’t impose themselves on the Girl Guides XV, let alone South Africa and Samoa. The problem has been partly addressed by the influx of three players who missed the Six Nations in the burly shape of WP Nel, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson, who were all otherwise engaged.
This trio will help shore up the scrum and give Scotland some go-forward with the ball in hand but this may be the first Scotland side since 1999 where the back line looks better than the forward pack, even after that influx of fresh blood.
Add in the fact that the big men will do most of the heavy lifting and suffer more by way of injuries and attrition in the process and Cotter may be tempted to go for a 18/13 split between his forwards/backs (England and Australia both went 17/14). He can always tweak that balance midway through the tournament: all he needs is one injury to a forward.
If he goes 18/13 the coach can take all three of his hookers, all five props, the four specialist second rows and six breakaways including one who can do a stint in the boiler house if needs be – probably David Denton or Rob Harley, who is listed as a lock, although goodness knows why? Scotland have done nothing this year to suggest they can afford to field a lightweight lock; possibly against Japan but not the big boys in the pool and even the Eagles boast the massive Samu Manoa in their second row.
Some have questioned Jim Hamilton’s place. He doesn’t appear to be a natural fit for Cotter’s expansive, high-tempo, ball-in-hand game plan but he is the sort of player you don’t notice until he’s not there. When Italy were mauling Scotland into the Murrayfield turf back in February, Hamilton was warming Saracens’ substitutes’ bench in the Aviva Premiership. Should Samoa’s big men maul their way over the Scotland line to win the match Cotter cannot claim he wasn’t warned.
Six breakaways means Scotland could enjoy the luxury of two specialist openside flankers, although that would mean abandoning our guiding principle that power trumps all.
If Cotter restricts himself to one specialist No.7 – and remember Harley and Ryan Wilson have both started there for Glasgow – it would allow the coach to pack the third row of the scrum with some real muscle: Josh Strauss and David Denton at eight, Adam Ashe and Ryan Wilson at six and that still leaves Rob Harley who can cover four, six or seven. Should Cotter opt for two sevens he would have to disappoint Wilson or Harley or Ashe.
The half-backs look straightforward: all three scrum-halves are liable to travel, with Finn Russell and Duncan Weir the probable stand-offs since the latter offers a point of difference, with Peter Horne and Greig Laidlaw able to cover in extremis.
Outside things get messy, especially with Dunbar seeing a knee injury specialist tomorrow in London, a meeting that will likely determine his chances of making an appearance. A difficult man to do without, it still looks too big a risk given Dunbar’s injury and his lack of game time. Should he play only for the knee to give way again Cotter would be hung out to dry, and rightly so.
In his absence – and Dunbar could still appear as late injury replacement – I’d pick Matt Scott, Peter Horne and Mark Bennett as the three centres. Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg are all probables for a place in the back three which leaves two more places to fill in the back division. One should go to Sean Lamont, the type of up-and-at-’em player every squad needs in a World Cup campaign, and he fills any position in the outside backs.
The 31st and final place goes to Richie Vernon if Cotter wants to err on the defensive, or Tim Visser if the Kiwi is looking for another strike runner with the thought, in the back of his mind, that Dunbar or Duncan Taylor could yet play their part.