Less than a year from both the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and the San Francisco Sevens World Cup, Scotland’s short squad has lost two veterans who will be difficult to replace.
Mark Robertson and Scott Wight were mainstays of the team for several seasons and they tasted success at Twickenham under former coach Calum MacRae, twice in the last two campaigns.
MacRae has moved on to become Edinburgh’s defence coach and his replacement, John Dalziel, has big boots to fill with the opening round of this season’s series in Dubai starting tomorrow.
“Calum has left the programme in an excellent position,” Dalziel concedes. “Winning tournaments is a great achievement in itself but the whole merit of the programme is to have another pathway for young players to cement themselves as international athletes and push on to the 15s game.
“We have seen that in abundance with players like JJ [James Johnstone] and Dougie Fife this year with Edinburgh, and Jamie Farndale is in there as well. These guys are the mainstays of the Edinburgh side and Dougie is in there with Scotland as well.”
Dalziel makes a good point about sevens players making an impact in the 15-a-side game and the Scotland sevens squad has acted as a safety net for players like Fife and Lee Jones to ride out the vagaries of coaches, but surely sevens is worth pursuing for its own sake?
Sevens in the only game where Scotland have won anything on a world stage against all the best rugby nations and to treat it as nothing more than a development tool for 15s is crazy. It has its own tournaments, its own World Cup and is now an Olympic sport – and how jealous are those 15s players who will never get a chance to win an Olympic silver medal like the ones in Robertson’s and Mark Bennett’s sock drawer?
The good news is that Scotland’s conveyor belt of players looks in rude good health at the moment. If players like Darryl Marfo emerged from nowhere to star in Scotland’s autumn series of Tests, there are a number of young players putting their hands up and demanding recognition in the short game.
Currie Chieftains’ Harvey Elms is a good prospect, Sam Pecqueur is worth keeping an eye on, as is Ross McCann, who Dalziel knows all about from his time with the Scotland under-20s squad.
“It’s a series of transition for us,” says the coach, “but it’s a real opportunity, three years out from the Olympics, to try and blood some young players.
“To have a shot at a Commonwealth Games and a World Cup at the end of the season is fantastic for everybody.”
George Horne was a stand-out last season but he has made himself invaluable to Glasgow and his place at scrum-half will be filled by Gavin Lowe, who missed much of last season with injury, and perhaps Darcy Graham, who has also been sidelined this season.
The speedy winger James Fleming has a shoulder injury but his shirt will be filled by the even speedier winger Max McFarland, an Irish import from Munster who is qualified for and already tied to Scotland thanks to a previous tournament in blue.
He is the quickest Scottish rugby player ever tested, quicker than Thom Evans who was Billy Whizz in rugby boots.
There is experience in the squad with the Kiwi pair of Nick McLennan and Hugh Blake, Scotland’s very own Fijian Jo Nayacavou and veteran skipper Scott Riddell.
The Scots enjoyed a warm up tournament in South Africa where the only team to beat them were South Africa, the Scots losing once in the pool stages and again in the final to the powerful host nation.
“The boys did really well,” Dalziel insists. “Harvey Elms, Ross McCann and Sam Pequeur all got their first taste of action. It was really, really good.”
Scotland pool matches in Dubai:
Scotland v France (tomorrow, kick-off 7.14), Scotland v Spain (tomorrow, 10.58), Scotland v England (tomorrow 16.37).
Scotland squad: Scott Riddell (capt), Harvey Elms, Hugh Blake, Ross McCann, Nick McLennan, Jo Nayacavou, Jamie Farndale, Robbie Fergusson, Darcy Graham, Gavin Lowe, Max McFarland, Jack Cuthbert, Sam Pecqueur.