Allan Massie: No 9 still a position of strength for Scotland

George Horne. Picture: Getty
George Horne. Picture: Getty
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Dave Rennie’s selection of young George Horne on the bench for last night’s match against Montpellier doesn’t, I think, indicate that he has edged ahead of Henry Pyrgos in the pecking-order, but it does show that he has made a remarkably confident and successful start to his professional career. The speed and accuracy of his pass and his alertness on the break and in open play have been mighty impressive.

Actually, Scotland have been very well-served at scrum-half for the last half-century, at least since Gala’s Duncan Paterson, uncle of Chris, was one of the stars of our 1971 Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham. His time at the top was too short, but throughout the Seventies there was keen competition for the No 9 jersey between Dougie Morgan and Alan Lawson, father of Rory. They were different types of player. I don’t recall that the term “game management” was in vogue then, but Morgan was a supremely good game manager. In two famous victories against the great Wales team of their “glory days”, he outshone Gareth Edwards, and very few players ever did that. Lawson was a very fast adventurous player, once scoring two tries from some way out in a defeat of England at 
Murrayfield.

The Eighties belonged to Roy Laidlaw, uncle of Greig, but he was pushed hard by Selkirk’s Gordon Hunter. Hunter got only four caps, but those were the days when replacements were permitted only for injured players. Nowadays, when scrum-halves are usually replaced around the hour mark, he would have had 30 or so. As it was he was unfortunate to be in competition with such a great scrum-half as Roy Laidlaw. Hawick’s Greig Oliver was almost as unlucky, sandwiched ,as it were, between Laidlaw in his last season and Gary Armstrong in his first. In different circumstances Oliver might have owned the No 9 jersey for several seasons. That said, the amateur selectors always had some doubts about Hawick scrum-halves, reckoning it was one thing to shine behind the Hawick pack, quite another to be behind the Scotland one.

Gary Armstrong was as good a No 9 as we have ever had, and for a bit the best in the Lions’ countries. He played for Scotland from 1989 to 1999, but there was a dip in the middle of his career, partly because he decided to play in the centre for Jedforest. Professionalism and a contract with Newcastle gave him a new lease of life; he was a better player when he captained Scotland to win the Five Nations in 1999 than he had ever been. Yet his position was always challenged, first by Andy Nicol, who captained Bath to win the Heineken Cup and Scotland to win the Calcutta Cup in 2000, and then by Brian (Basil) Redpath who, like Armstrong and Nicol captained Scotland, doing so in the 2003 World Cup.

The next ten years may not have been glory ones for Scotland, but we were always well-served at scrum-half by Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson. It was hard to choose between them, but Blair is one of the rare Scots to have been short-listed for the World Player of the Year Award. All suffered from the regular failure of Scotland teams of their time to deliver quick clean ball; all would have shone behind a stronger pack.

They were followed by Greig Laidlaw, the canniest of 9s with the coolest of heads, a game-manager in the Dougie Morgan class. Injury has brought his career to a temporary halt, but no matter how well his successors – Ali Price, Henry Pyrgos and youngsters snapping at their heels play– it seems likely that, if Laidlaw returns to fitness and form with Clermont-Auvergne, Gregor Townsend will want to have him available for the World Cup in Japan.

Yet competition for the three scrum-halves in that World Cup squad will be fierce, if present form is maintained and improvement continues. Ali Price is deservedly the man in possession, and his understanding with Finn Russell means that their partnership now seems to run off the tongue as easily as Rutherford and (Roy) Laidlaw used to, or as Armstrong and Townsend did in 1999. Still, apart from a fit-again Greig Laidlaw and the calm and astute Henry Pyrgos, we now have young George Horne sending off sparks like a Catherine Wheel, while only last weekend the three tries scored by Sam Hidalgo-Clyne for Edinburgh against the Southern Kings was a reminder that there are challengers at the other end of the M8 where, as it happens, Hidalgo-Clyne can’t be sure of being first choice at Edinburgh ahead of Nathan Fowles.

There have been players in other positions who have had Scottish supporters wondering why they are in the national team. But, for a very long time now, we have never doubted that anyone selected at scrum-half for Scotland was of genuine international class.