When I remarked last week that injuries come in training as easily as in matches, I was thinking of Stuart Hogg’s damaged hip which caused him to limp off the field during Scotland’s warm-up for the Test against Australia. Yet, soon after I sent the column off came word that a weight had fallen on Zander Fagerson’s foot in the gym with the result that he will miss most, if not all, of the Six Nations. Troubles for Scottish props seem to come in battalions.
So it seems likely that when Gregor Townsend names his squad for the first Six Nations matches, Jon Welsh is favourite to start at tight-head. There shouldn’t be any great worries about him – so long as he gets to Cardiff fit and raring to go. He may not have played for Scotland since the World Cup quarter-final in 2015, but at the age of 31 he may well be in his peak years as a prop. He has been starting regularly in the Aviva Premiership for Newcastle, who are having their best season in years. He has evidently won the confidence of his coach Dean Richards, and any forward who does that is doing pretty well. Richards himself was one of the greatest England forwards I have ever seen – indeed I have often thought that we might not have won the famous Grand Slam match in 1990 if Richards had been available for England that day. He was that good. So Jon Welsh, fine. The back-up is more questionable. I reckon Welsh must look to play for more than the first hour of the match in Cardiff – always assuming, fingers crossed, that he escapes the curse that some malign spirit has laid on Scottish props.
Loosehead is marginally less worrying – again with the same proviso – though it is sad that Darryl Marfro, whose somewhat improbable, certainly unexpected arrival on the international scene, was one of the happiest stories of the autumn, is among those posted “absent, injured”. Still Jamie Bhatti did very well when he came on as a replacement for Marfro. Rory Sutherland is – for the moment at least – fit again, and the ex-Warrior but still warrior-like Gordon Reid has been starting regularly for London Irish.
Props used to be the most durable of players, seldom injured. The great Hugh McLeod didn’t, I think, miss a single Scotland match between 1954 and 1962, and his comrade, the indomitable Fife farmer David Rollo – like McLeod a Lion – was equally robust. Like that slightly later pairing of Sandy Carmichael and Ian McLauchlan, they played in the days when some ferocious French, South African and New Zealand props seemed as frightening as Mike Tyson. McLauchlan defied injuries, playing in the 1975 Calcutta Cup, having had a bone in his leg broken only two weeks before.
Still the game has changed, players being bigger and stronger, and no doubt the stress experienced in the front row is greater than ever. A few English props have been out of action too, though of course Eddie Jones has so many to call on that his problems in any position will never be as severe as those faced by Scottish, Welsh and Irish coaches. There are, after all, as many players in the Aviva Premiership as in Scotland, Wales and Ireland put together.
Jones will be missing loosehead prop Joe Marler for the first two rounds of the tournament, though his six-week suspension ends in time for him to play in the Calcutta Cup. Given his past disciplinary record, the sentence meted out to him was lenient – the same, incidentally, as that given to Edinburgh and Scotland’s Simon Berghan who, unlike Marler, isn’t a serial offender.
The modern game takes a heavy toll of players. When Glasgow announced their team to play Zebre last week, there was a full XV of players unavailable for selection on account of injury. This week however, the former Edinburgh and Scotland centre Nick De Luca aired the question of how effective management is in caring for players’ mental, as well as physical, health. This is an area that I would guess few want to venture into, and it was brave of De Luca to raise it, and speak of the mental and nervous troubles he had experienced himself, and the effect of these on his confidence and ability.
De Luca was a very talented and skilful centre who arguably rarely did himself full justice in a Scotland jersey, and who, one now learns, found the often unfair, and sometimes nasty and abusive criticism to which he was subjected in social media hard to take. I wonder if people who write vile abuse on the comments sections of websites ever consider the pain they cause, the damage that their words can do.