Never mind the match, the Scotland press conference to announce the team to play the Springboks tomorrow was a tetchy enough affair. On top of accommodating two injuries in the form of stand-off Finn Russell and openside John Hardie, the coach has made several unforced changes to his run-on XV.
Gordon Reid, Richie Vernon and Blair Cowan all get their first taste of World Cup rugby, Duncan Weir and hooker Fraser Brown both get their first starts and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is poised to replace skipper Greig Laidlaw off the bench if needs be. Full-back Stuart Hogg is the only player to have started all three matches to date.
The journalists present – well, some of the braver ones – suggested to Cotter that this team was picked with one eye on Samoa next week. Cotter employed both eyes in a death stare on the miscreants and did his best to rubbish this line of questioning without ever denying it outright. He can’t, it is true, but to admit as much would demoralise his troops and offer succour to the Saffas.
Explain your thinking behind this selection?
“I am not sure how to answer that,” Cotter replied with lashings of snarkasm. “It is a team that has been selected to compete against South Africa. If you have specifics then ask them.”
Richie Vernon plays his first game?
“Mark [Bennett] has played and he is right up there in game time,” Cotter replied. “This is our third game in ten days. We have looked at workloads and potential injuries and there are players we feel that are better regenerating. Fraser Brown comes in as Ross Ford had a good shift against USA so Fraser comes in to even up the workloads a little bit.”
But there are still second-string players?
“These players will be giving one hundred per cent of themselves and it is a team that will be competitive. Everybody has worked hard to make the 31 and we said we needed to use everyone. That is the case now and now it is a case of stepping up and getting on with it. We know who we are playing against and how well they can play, especially in that last game. The challenge is there and every rugby player enjoys that type of thing and we will see the best coming out in their performance.”
Did Cotter intend to make these changes all along?
“It is dangerous to have pre-conceived ideas,” replied the Kiwi. “Some players have had more game time, some less. Four games to qualify, we are on our third. We are doing our damned best to give our best in this game against South Africa and I am sure the players will. I didn’t choose the draw.”
The absence of Russell has affected the entire set-up of the team, which is packed full of stoppers: from Josh Strauss and David Denton doubling up in the third row of the scrum to Vernon and Matt Scott parking the bus midfield, effectively fighting ire with ire, countering the highly physical approach of the Springboks’ midfield trio.
Weir is a very decent replacement No 10 who attacks the gain line pretty well, but he lacks the instinctive vision of Russell who can conjure something out of nothing, such as Sean Maitland’s try against the Eagles. Both Cotter and Scotland captain Laidlaw went out of their way to burnish his replacement’s ego ahead of tomorrow’s match.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” said Laidlaw of Russell’s absence. “Finn is a wonderful player but then again, although he picked up a knock, he’s played a lot of rugby as well so it’s a good opportunity for Duncan to come in. It’s important for me to give him a few early touches and settle him into his role.
“He’s played enough rugby now to know what it’s all about and he’ll be relishing this opportunity. Matt Scott has been in fine form outside him so both me and Matty can help him, inside and out.”
“Duncan has a great skill set,” said Cotter. “He is a great kicker and passer of the ball, he is a brave defender and he has worked hard. He has a great attitude, they all have.”
Incidentally Cotter mentioned that Russell should be back into full training by the middle of next week in time for him to take his place in the team to play Samoa. With a little luck Hardie, who took a head knock against Japan and was due to be tested yesterday, will also be fit for Samoa, not that Cotter was thinking that far ahead.
“We’re just looking at this game,” he insisted. “We’re not looking at the Samoa game; that’s next week. We are looking to put in a big performance and have a real crack at these guys. That’s the way we are approaching this game.”