Scotland looked good in the autumn series of Tests but how many times have we said that, only to be disappointed as the national team wilts in the unforgiving spotlight of the Six Nations?
National coach Gregor Townsend tinkers with his teams in an effort to find the most effective combinations and here are six players in five positions who played no part in November’s Tests who could star in the Six Nations.
1 DAVID DENTON
Townsend needs ball-playing forwards to execute his high tempo game plan so he has managed without a big carrier in a back row combo that looks a little unbalanced. Will the coach continue with Ryan Wilson, an intelligent everyman at eight, or will the realpolitik of the Six Nations demand that Townsend select a more direct bruiser in the shape of David Denton?
The Six Nations is a very different animal to the autumn series, something Scottish fans know through painful experience. What’s more New Zealand and Australia are the two teams on Planet Rugby that will play Scotland at their own game of running rugby. Townsend won’t imagine that England, Ireland, Wales, France or Italy are going to be quite so accommodating.
Opposition teams will look to wear down the Scottish forwards with defensive duties, drive lineouts and sap their strength and spirit with pick and goes. Remember the new laws make it increasingly difficult to get the ball off the opposition and very few of the current Scotland forwards boast the size or athleticism to knock the opposition back in the tackle.
After a horrible run of injuries Denton is back playing for Worcester Warriors and he turned out yesterday on Challenge Cup duty in an effort to get time in the saddle. He may only be a 50-minute player but you suspect that Scotland may need Denton’s athleticism and aggression to shore up their close quarter defence.
2 ALLAN DELL/ALI DICKINSON
It’s a good job the Darryl Marfo rags-to-riches story is true or we’d suspect that it was just another work of fiction to make us feel warm and fuzzy at Christmas. However the Edinburgh prop has some set-piece home work to catch up on and you might not want him locking the Scottish scrum in the Six Nations where every mistake is magnified.
Ali Dickinson has been missing for so long you wonder if the Dundonian will ever play again, let alone recapture the form that made him one of the stand-out players of Scotland’s 2015 World Cup campaign. Allan Dell does not match Dickinson’s set-piece excellence but his speed around the field is phenomenal and his handling superb, fitting in perfectly with Townsend’s high tempo, off-loading game plan. However, Dell has also been out of action for longer than ideal and neither man looks a dead cert to return in time for the opening match against Wales on 3 February.
3 DUNCAN TAYLOR
It would seem unfair on whoever is nudged out of the starting XV but young Huw Jones brings something special to the No 13 jersey and Glasgow coach Dave Rennie has just proved that Alex Dunbar is not un-droppable.
If he’s fit Taylor should be starting for Scotland. His greatest gift is composure, that indefinable air of being in control of events rather than being at the whim of them and that is essential in the Six Nations.
He has the speed to play outside centre and the physical presence to do a good shift in the No 12 shirt and he is due back before the turn of the year.
4 TIM VISSER
It was Napoleon who said that he liked his generals to be lucky and the big Dutchman has that quality in spades.
Playing for his club last weekend Harlequins were trailing Saracens by a score when the Quins’ ten hoofed the ball, high and hopeful, in the direction of Visser’s left wing. Saracens full-back Alex Goode rose above the Dutchman but could do no more than palm the ball straight into Visser’s arms for the winning score.
On current form he is ahead of Tommy Seymour, who appears to be suffering a severe Lions hangover. He was all fingers and thumbs during the autumns; carrying the ball over his own goal line against New Zealand, pretending he hadn’t carried the ball over his own goal line and then knocking on to gift the Aussies an early try with the match in the balance.
5 GEORGE HORNE
There are different ways of looking at the substitutes’ bench. You can double up, effectively picking a similar player to your starter in case of an injury in the opening minutes; you can choose someone to close out the game without any drama; or you pick a totally different style of player to give you tactical options.
Henry Pyrgos is more tactical than the younger Horne brother who has impressed every time he has stepped up a level, one of the key indicators for Townsend.
Outstanding last season with Scotland’s sevens squad, when Horne has played for Glasgow this season, whether starting or finishing, his pace on the ball has caught the eye. He is similar to Price only smaller and perhaps even quicker, in thought if not in deed.
The question Townsend needs to ask is, are Scotland defending a lead or chasing the game in the final quarter? If he believes the latter then Horne has a shout.