VERN Cotter had to weigh up the risk of injury to some key front-line players against the damage a walloping in Paris just ahead of the World Cup would do to the morale of his team if he chose a shadow team.
The Scotland head coach opted for a show of strength for this evening’s match because it looks suspiciously close to his first-choice XV, allowing for a couple of injuries and the continued absence of Josh Strauss, who doesn’t get to change his name to Tosh McStrauss until 19 September.
Elsewhere, Ryan Grant is back scrummaging again but not deemed fit enough to challenge Alasdair Dickinson for the No 1 jersey. Richie Gray gets the nod ahead of Grant Gilchrist and Stuart Hogg’s twisted ankle gives a chance for Sean Maitland to show how much depth Scotland has at full-back.
The Kiwi made his name as a winger, scoring a try against England on his international debut, and he is the last of Scotland’s walking wounded to take to the field in these warm up matches, having hurt his shoulder in the European Cup tie at Bath’s Recreation ground way back in January. He always was targeting this game for his comeback but injuries are unpredictable and he admits that there were times in those endless rehab sessions when he wasn’t sure he was going to get in under the wire.
“There were times in the last nine weeks when we did have doubts,” he admits, “but, over that time, I’ve worked bloody hard with the physios and the rest of the staff to get back into shape. Yeah, there were times when I thought, ‘Man, I’m not going to make it’. But then you get to a point where you turn a corner and start going uphill. It’s feeling good.
“I don’t know what the exact turning point was, maybe just getting a bit of strength back in the weight room, gaining confidence. Two weeks ago I did a bit of tackling, surprised myself how good it was. When I saw the surgeon he gave me the all clear. That was the big difference.
“It was always going to be touch and go, so it’s worked out well. To be honest, I don’t know what the coaches were thinking. For me, the worry was just getting back fit. I’m just really grateful that I’ve been picked in the squad and I know I have a point to prove this weekend. But it was always going to be close, given the deadline for selection. I always felt I would be ready a week or two before the World Cup.”
A winger by design, Maitland’s ability in the air in his new position is sure to be tested by French stand-off Freddie Michalak, who starts outside Sebastien Tillous-Borde in a side that looks like the real deal, with the exception of lock Yoann Maestri, who is resting bruised ribs. The centre partnership of Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana is a class little-and-large double act, with the latter popping up in the French press last week alongside scrum-half Morgan Parra, who starts on the bench.
The pair play their club rugby at Clermont and both claimed that Cotter’s Scotland team was aping the Clermont of old, which isn’t entirely surprising, with the ball either going wide or staying with the forwards in a narrow 15-metre channel. They may even be right. Cotter has made no secret of his desire to attack with the ball in hand, especially now that Scotland have some potent weapons in the back three, even in the absence of the injured Hogg.
“It’s awesome,” says Maitland when asked about the competition in the back three. “Seany [Lamont] has found a new gear and he’s going to get his 100th [cap] soon. Tim [Visser] has found some form as well. I think that’s key. You have to have competition and that’s what its been like in Glasgow for the last three years.
“There are some quality players there but it’s good. Me and Tommy [Seymour] have to fight for the jersey this week and we only have one game to prove ourselves and then it’s best team from there on in. You just have to take your chance and go for it.”
If Maitland will be tested in his new role at full-back – and he offered a desire to play in the 15 shirt as one reason for swapping Glasgow for London Irish in the summer – so too the Scottish forwards will learn something about themselves after a rigorous, physical examination by a French pack that dismantled the England eight without mercy just two weeks ago.
The French paper L’Equipe was lauding the return of “Super Loulou” – Louis Picamoles to you and me – the giant ball-carrying No 8 with thighs ordered from the same catalogue that Jonah Lomu once used.
He forms a powerful back-row unit with skipper Thierry Dusautoir and Damien Chouly, another product of Clermont. None of that trio can be classed as undernourished but the Scots at least know what to expect.
“Obviously they are a really well drilled outfit and they had a really good win against England,” says Maitland of today’s opponents. “They have a lot of weapons in the back line. I think it’s going to be a very tough game over there but we will go with the mindset that we are building for the World Cup and we’ll just keep driving our systems on attack and defence. We haven’t won over there in a while, so that’s our goal, to try and make it a ‘W’ over there.
“We’ll get a lot of things out of it. The World Cup are big games and this is another big game so, for me, it’s all about match fitness. I haven’t played in seven months. It’s a nice easy game to come back into!
“I think they are hitting some form as well. I think its going to be a really good game. They want to go out and score tries and they want to go out and score tries too so, hopefully, it’s a real entertaining game of rugby.”
You suspect that Cotter won’t worry too much about entertaining the Parisian crowd but the Scotland boss would probably settle for a highly competitive performance and an absence of any serious injuries.
World Cup warm–up Test
At Stade de France, tonight, kick-off 8pm
Live on BT Sport 1 and Radio Scotland 810MW
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
15 - Scott Spedding (Bayonne)
14 - Yoann Huget (Toulouse)
13 - Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon)
12 - Wesley Fofana (Clermont)
11 - Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont)
10 - Frédéric Michalak (Toulon)
9 - Sébastien Tillous-Borde (Toulon)
1 - Eddy Ben Arous (Racing Metro)
2 - Guilhem Guirado (Perpignan)
3 - Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais)
4 - Pascal Papé (Stade Francais)
5 - Alexandre Flanquart (S Francais)
6 - Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse; capt)
7 - Damien Chouly (Clermont)
8 - Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)
16 - Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing Metro)
17 - Vincent Debaty (Clermont)
18 - Nicolas Mas (Montpellier)
19 - Bernard le Roux (Racing Metro)
20 - Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse)
21 - Morgan Parra (Clermont)
22 - Rémi Talès (Castres)
23 - Alexandre Dumoulin (Racing Metro)
15 - Sean Maitland (Glasgow)
14 - Tommy Seymour (Glasgow)
13 - Mark Bennett (Glasgow)
12 - Matt Scott (Edinburgh)
11 - Tim Visser (Harlequins)
10 - Finn Russell (Glasgow)
9 - Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester; capt)
1 - Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh)
2 - Ross Ford (Edinburgh)
3 - Willem Nel (Edinburgh)
4 - Richie Gray (Castres)
5 - Jonny Gray (Glasgow)
6 - Ryan Wilson (Glasgow)
7 - John Hardie (Unattached)
8 - David Denton (Edinburgh)
16 - Fraser Brown (Glasgow)
17 - Gordon Reid (Glasgow)
18 - Jon Welsh (Newcastle)
19 - Tim Swinson (Glasgow)
20 - Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan)
21 - Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh)
22 - Duncan Weir (Glasgow)
23 - Sean Lamont (Glasgow)