SELECTING a squad of 31 players – two full teams and an extra man – may sound like an easy task for coaches accustomed to naming only 23 for a match. But, when it comes to this year’s Rugby World Cup, in which teams will play a minimum of four games and a maximum of seven, finalising that 31 will require a mixture of logistical calculation, medical advice, tactical planning – and probably the odd gamble as well.
Take into account the fact that Scotland fielded 33 players over the course of this year’s Six Nations Championship and it should become clear that head coach Vern Cotter faces a lot of number-crunching over the coming months. What’s more, his task will be made all the more complex by the availability of several players whose services were denied to him during the tournament just ended by injury or current ineligibility.
Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist is one player who will definitely be in contention provided he completes his recovery from injury on time. Glasgow No 8 Josh Strauss will become eligible on residency grounds in September, while his clubmate and fellow South African WP Nel, a prop, will qualify in June.
Scrum-half Chris Cusiter was drafted into Scotland’s training squad but not included in a matchday 23, and he could be joined in contention by such names as Duncan Weir, Duncan Taylor, Ruaridh Jackson and Henry Pyrgos. Two experienced internationals, back-row forwards Kelly Brown and John Barclay. may also come back into consideration.
Cotter’s first big decision will be who to invite to Scotland’s pre-World-Cup training camp in June. The precise number here is at the coach’s own discretion, and he is expected to select around 45 players for the camp.
Both the coach and captain Greig Laidlaw stressed the importance of the camp on Saturday, after Scotland had lost their fifth and final game in the Six Nations. “Things can be fixed by [the World Cup],” the scrum-half said in the wake of the 40-10 defeat by Ireland. “We have more time together by then and that time will be very precious.”
Cotter is confident he knows why things are going wrong for Scotland, and, like Laidlaw, believes that, with enough time together in camp, they can eliminate a lot of the unforced errors that have been so costly over the past couple of months. “We get to work with the players for three months before we go into the World Cup,” he said. “If we do the simple things well, we’ll be fine.”
The squad for Scotland’s four World Cup warm-up games will be chosen from the training-camp group, although the selectors also have carte blanche to add new players. The games, on consecutive Saturdays, are against Ireland in Dublin (15 August), Italy in Turin (22nd), Italy at Murrayfield (29th) and France in Paris (5 September).
Days after that match at the Stade de France, Cotter will name his World Cup squad. Scotland will then officially check in to the tournament on Wednesday 16 September, before getting their campaign under way a week later with a pool match against Japan in Gloucester. Only four days later, Sunday 27 September, they will play the United States in Leeds, before playing on consecutive Saturdays, 3 and 10 October, against South Africa and Samoa respectively, both in Newcastle.
It is a tight schedule, and will be particularly demanding on those players who take part in both of the opening two games. The numbers make it possible to field two entirely different starting line-ups but, in reality, there could be as many as seven or eight who will begin both.
There are likely to be 17 or 18 forwards in the squad of 31, with a particular emphasis on front-row cover. Ryan Grant and Alasdair Dickinson will compete to be first-choice loosehead prop, Fraser Brown will be Ross Ford’s deputy hooker, and Euan Murray will be an automatic pick at tighthead – with Geoff Cross coming in for at least the USA game, as Murray declines to play on Sundays. Nel is expected to be another option at tighthead, although there could be a late challenge from Zander Fagerson, who has been outstanding in Sean Lineen’s impressive under-20s team. Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh will also contend for front-row places, and hooker Pat McArthur will be out to force his way back into the squad.
As things stand, Jonny Gray and a fit-again Gilchrist look like being the locks, with Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray as back-ups.
In the back row, Strauss will contend with Rob Harley, David Denton, Adam Ashe and Blair Cowan, among others.
The big question among the backs is whether Alex Dunbar will be fit on time. The centre has just begun a lengthy recuperation from knee surgery following the cruciate damage he sustained in training, and, although he should be aerobically fit well before the tournament, match fitness to Test standard will take longer to regain.
Without Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Matt Scott will be automatic choices at centre, with utility backs Greig Tonks and Sean Lamont backing them up. The first-choice back three will be Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and a fit-again Sean Maitland, with Dougie Fife and Tim Visser also contending on the wing.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne should at last start an international soon, but Laidlaw is likely to hold on to the captaincy and the No 9 jersey for the big matches, with Cusiter also going to the tournament. Cotter will have to resist the temptation to wrap Finn Russell in cotton wool between now and the autumn, given the importance of his stand-off, and he will also have to decide whether Tonks is adequate back-up, or whether Peter Horne should also be included.
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