Let real battle commence on way to World Cup

Finn Russell in action for Scotland in Canada. Picture: SNS
Finn Russell in action for Scotland in Canada. Picture: SNS
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THE summer tour was the phoney war, if you like. Not much happened. Small earthquake in South Africa. Few hurt. Scotland emerged with, well, if not credit, at least some pride after winning three from four even if that one reversal in Port Elizabeth was a shellacking.

In an ideal world Cotter would announce his squad of 30-odd bodies on Monday and run them right through to the World Cup, but instead the coach will make do and mend with a number of players only just returned to action, several of whom are touch and go for the autumn Tests.

One of those is loosehead prop Ryan Grant who is fit again, if only just: his rugby return has been confined to a stint with Ayr yesterday afternoon, less than ideal preparation for the All Blacks. Alastair Dickinson may be his equal in the set scrum and Gordon Reid will be involved if Cotter wants three looseheads.

At hooker there are four candidates for three positions with one of Ross Ford, Pat MacArthur, Fraser Brown and Kevin Bryce likely to miss out. All have something to offer, but, for all his strength at the set scrum, Ford struggles with the hooker’s core skills of hooking and throwing. Despite that Bryce or Brown will probably be the missing name come tomorrow morning.

Second row is one of relative strength. Grant Gilchrist is a long way below his best form after sitting out the start of the season with an ankle injury but he is improving with every game and is sure to be involved. On Friday night’s evidence Richie Gray is in good form for Castres, even if they are getting cuffed every second week, but Jim Hamilton has enjoyed only two starts for Saracens and a man his size needs regular rugby, if only to keep fit. Expect Jonny Gray and Tim Swinson to make up the quartet.

At least Cotter has choices to make at lock because there is only one No.8 with any experience still left standing, Johnnie Beattie. Any rugby David Denton and Ryan Wilson have enjoyed recently has been at BT Premiership level, so Beattie looks a shoo-in for the opener against Argentina. Depending on Wilson’s match fitness, Cotter may be tempted to give him and/or Adam Ashe a run in the No.6 shirt at some point, where they face competition from Rob Harley and Alasdair Strokosch.

At seven, the coach is spoilt for choice, with Ross Rennie, Kelly Brown, John Barclay, Chris Fuzaro and Blair Cowan all loaded and ready to fire. London Irish openside Cowan has a low profile in Scotland but is in good form for the exiles while Brown is in the familiar, if uncomfortable, position of being caught between two shirts.

The three scrum-halves pretty much pick themselves and we will know more about Cotter’s grand plan when we see which nine he starts. For high-tempo rugby he will probably choose Chris Cuister, who has been on good form for Sale Sharks, scoring a typically opportunistic try in the win against Wasps last weekend. Greig Laidlaw is the master tactician and Henry Pyrgos sits somewhere in between. All three offer leadership.

The stand-off, Finn Russell, below, looks set to continue his hothousing despite starting yesterday’s Champions Cup match on the Glasgow bench. Russell needs game time at the top level after showing some rough edges in Canada. In truth, his rough edges had rough edges all of their own. He needs time on the horse if he is to be any use to Scotland come the World Cup.

Were Russell lining up inside Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar, we’d be looking at the best midfield trio in Scotland colours since 1999 when Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait ripped up the turf. Sadly, Scott won’t be fit until after the autumn Tests.

Cotter has two choices. He can go defensive, which would see Saracens’ everyman Duncan Taylor come in at 12 (provided his swollen ankle is right) with Dunbar lining up outside him, or he can utilise Dunbar at 12 with Mark Bennett at outside centre, a combination that would arguably pose a greater attacking threat. All three will be involved and you would bet on Bennett picking up that elusive first cap before November is over.

Finally, the back three positions in the squad will contain four or five names, with Tommy Seymour currently the best winger in Scotland and Dougie Fife the one with the most potential.