Allan Massie: Scotland coach Gregor Townsend spoiled for choice at 9

Greig Laidlaw patrols the back of the Scotland scrum against Fiji. Picture; Paul Devlin/SNS
Greig Laidlaw patrols the back of the Scotland scrum against Fiji. Picture; Paul Devlin/SNS
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Both Edinburgh and Glasgow can go into the Champions Cup break feeling reasonably satisfied and confident, both with a good chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals. If they do, the professional game will here will be in a happier state than it has been in the more than 20 years since Rugby Union went professional. Even more remarkably, it looks as if Saracens may be the only English club to escape the pools. That said, they obviously have a better chance of winning the Cup than either of the Scottish clubs.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh and Glasgow turn to their domestic rivalry, with the first leg of the Inter-City Cup being played at Murrayfield today. These matches are never easy, the outcome very hard to predict, partly of course because all the players know each other too well. Recently, Edinburgh have seemed to benefit from being regarded as the underdogs. This year is different, however. Both have played so well in Europe that it’s absurd to make either the favourite. Even the temptation to bill the contest as between Edinburgh’s forwards and Glasgow’s backs should be resisted. Glasgow may have an advantage at half-back and in the centre, but Edinburgh’s back three are as likely to score tries as Glasgow’s. Likewise, there’s little to choose between the teams up front. Let’s hope that both play the open exciting rugby of which they are capable.

At least the forecast suggests that conditions will be a good deal better than they were last week at Scotstoun where they were so dreadful that, if it had been an amateur friendly, the referee might have taken pity on players and spectators alike, called a halt at half-time and suggested that the teams should head for the bar rather than returning to the field.

There’s a busy few weeks before the Six Nations, but this seems a suitable moment to mull over Scotland’s scrum-half rankings. With Greig Laidlaw, Ali Price, George Horne and Henry Pyrgos, you have to say that Gregor Townsend is spoiled for choice.

Some comments on social media suggest that there is still a fair number of Scottish supporters who are not convinced that Laidlaw, first choice throughout November, should still be that in the Six Nations. He slows up the game, they say, his pass isn’t good enough and he carries little threat in attack, certainly less than either Price or Horne. There may be some substance to such criticisms, and the last is surely valid. He doesn’t break often or indeed do so in the snipe-like manner of his Uncle Roy back in the 1980s. As against that, there seems little doubt that nobody matches him for game-management.

One might also answer his critics by observing that, apart from being Townsend’s first choice, he has been starting regularly for his club Clermont-Auvergne. Given the importance that the French attach to the No 9 position – even the reverence with which they regard their scrum-halves – and given that Clermont are sitting in first place in the Top 14, it’s pretty clear that he is held in the highest esteem in France. That should make his critics stop and wonder if they might be mistaken.

Ali Price and George Horne also played in the November internationals and it occurred to me to try to judge the pecking order between them and Laidlaw. This proved very difficult. If you ranked each from three to one in different departments of the game – reading and management, pass, kicking from hand, defence, breaking, support play – it seemed to me that Laidlaw and Horne might have most threes, but that Price might be at two in almost every category. Totting up the scores, he might emerge with most points, suggesting that he is all-round the most complete player of the three. On the other hand, Laidlaw and Horne would each come top in more than one category –Laidlaw in reading and management, Horne in breaking and perhaps in support play, though, in the second of these, there’s little to choose between him and Price. Laidlaw is perhaps the best box-kicker, Price the best at seizing the moment for an attacking kick.

All in all, my exercise left me thinking, first, that there’s little to choose between them; second, that one would be happy to see any of them start a Six Nations match; and third, Townsend is lucky to have this sort of embarrassment of choice.

What then of Henry Pyrgos? He has been playing admirably for Edinburgh and has unquestionably contributed to Edinburgh’s improvement this season, especially by his ability to read the game. The answer is, I suppose, that his qualities are much like Laidlaw’s, so that, while Laidlaw might be paired with either Price or Horne in a matchday squad, Pyrgos is likely to be required only if Laidlaw is unavailable. Whether either Price or Horne might start ahead of Laidlaw would, I suppose, depend on who we were playing and where. And of course on current form.