In announcing his “big squad” for the tournament Vern Cotter found himself the centre of attention with four video cameras, the same number of snappers and perhaps 30 journalists all told. Welcome to the Six Nations, which boasts its very own magnetic attraction, not necessarily matched by the quality of the sport on offer.
The 35-man Scotland selection – 15 backs and 20 forwards – looked hopelessly ill-balanced at first glance. There were just two scrum-halves named which is odd because two nines will always be involved in the matchday 23 and they have about 101 different codes and calls to memorise between now and the opening match at home to England on 6 February.
It looks like Cotter is taking a huge gamble or perhaps he just knows that Henry Pyrgos is due back from injury at any moment and he didn’t want to name Ali Price only to drop the young Warrior when Pyrgos bins the crutches.
In the back line there were only five players named to fill the back three slots which looks fine until you realise that three of the five specialists, Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland, are currently sidelined by injury.
The good news is that all three men are due back fairly soon and the better news is that Sarries’ centre Duncan Taylor can double up as a winger – he scored a try against the England Saxons while wearing 14 on his back – and Ruaridh Jackson is a handy enough full-back.
For all that, there is a dearth of young wingers coming through and demanding inclusion as Zander Fagerson has done in the front row. Of the seven players who can fill the back three slots just two of them, Stuart Hogg and Jackson, came through the Scottish system.
But the biggest imbalance in the yesterday’s squad came in the third row of the scrum where Cotter announced four specialist sevens and three specialist No 8 forwards with not one blindside flanker in sight!
The coach insisted that he had determined not to pick Ryan Wilson in this squad even before the Glasgow man picked up a citing for grabbing the testicles of Saints’ skipper Lee Dickson. If we take his word for that then the Kiwi appears happy to go into the tournament without a specialist six but it’s not quite that simple.
Of the four flankers named only two, Chris Fusaro and John Hardie, are restricted to filling the No 7 role. Blair Cowan and John Barclay can do it but the former is equally comfortable at six and the latter can play across the back row. In fact, Barclay rarely gets a start at seven for the Scarlets thanks to the dynamism of his colleague James Davies (although he is currently injured).
The pair work well together, both with a nose for a turnover. Davies knocks them over and Barclay zeroes in on the ball. You don’t want your turnover expert at seven because you don’t want him having to make the first tackle which usually takes him out of the game. Ideally you want him second to the breakdown.
It is worth pointing out that David Pocock made his 17 turnovers at last year’s Rugby World Cup with an eight on his back after openside Michael Hooper had put the opponent on the turf. It is not impossible to see Barclay/Cowan filling a similar role for Scotland, after Hardie/Fusaro has tackled the ball carrier, perhaps even slotting into the No 8 slot, at least in defence.
If Cotter decides that Scotland need to field more physicality than Barclay/Cowan offer, especially for that daunting trip to Cardiff, he can whistle up Josh Strauss and Adam Ashe, both of whom have played plenty of rugby on the blindside flank. Given the width with which Scotland are playing the Kiwi may have decided to err on the side of mobility in the back row, especially when his front five (plus David Denton) all carry the ball pretty well.
Cotter addressed one other issue, the growing expectation of the Scottish fans. Did he think, the coach was quizzed, whether this squad could compete for the title?
“I think it’s important that we believe we can compete for the title,” was Cotter’s carefully crafted reply, which is a very different thing.