A spate of front-row injuries could derail Scotland’s chances of challenging for the Six Nations, as Duncan Smith explains
A penny for the thoughts of Scotland coach Gregor Townsend when he was given the news that Glasgow tighthead prop Zander Fagerson had smashed his foot by dropping a weights bench on it in the gym and was all but out of the Six Nations.
It was the latest, and a particularly cruel blow in what has been a catalogue of front-row injuries to dog Scotland throughout the season. With the Six Nations now less than four weeks away there is genuine concern that the wipeout could severely hamper Scots’ hopes which, at the close of a memorable autumn series, were as high going into the famous tournament as they have been for many a year.
The Fagerson news was a particular blow because the specialist, notoriously unforgiving position of tighthead has long been seen as an Achilles heel for Scottish rugby. Fagerson is only 21 and would, in a country with deeper resources, be working his apprenticeship at club level. However, the recent injury problems of WP Nel, who is currently recovering from a broken arm, have thrust him on to the pit face, where he has coped admirably and rushed to 15 caps in under two years.
South Africa-born Nel’s qualification on residency grounds had been a godsend for Scotland and he had been widely tipped as a potential Lions Test starter before neck problems ruined last season for him. He is currently midway through his recovery and, if he can get up to speed quickly, could possibly be back for the latter part of the Six Nations.
In a tournament that relies so much on momentum, however, the sole focus right now is that opener against Wales in Cardiff. If Townsend’s men are to challenge for the title this year you would think a win, which would have the twin added benefits of ending a 16-year drought and proving a point to Warren Gatland, is a must.
Edinburgh’s Simon Berghan, who deputised for Fagerson in the autumn, misses that match through suspension but will then be available. The situation presents an opportunity for Jon Welsh to make an unlikely comeback to the Test frontline and win what would be his 12th cap and first since the 2015 World Cup quarter-final, when his last act in a Scotland jersey was to unluckily give away the contentious penalty which broke Scottish hearts.
He left Glasgow after the 2015 Pro12 title win but has been playing regularly in a Newcastle Falcons side going great guns in the Aviva Premiership, featuring in the win over champions Exeter at the weekend.
Townsend brought him back into the squad as cover during the autumn and he would seem the obvious choice to don the No 3 jersey in Cardiff. Moray Low has 37 caps to his name and is also fit but has hardly featured Exeter.
It opens up the opportunity for 21-year-old Edinburgh novice Murray McCallum, who has adapted to the tighthead role, and was talked up by his coach Richard Cockerill on Friday as being ready to take his chance. Glasgow youngster D’Arcy Rae is another option.
A tricky situation but not an insurmountable one. The problem is that injuries are not restricted to tighthead. Loosehead is as much of a problem.
Veteran Al Dickinson is out for the long-term and won’t feature, his Edinburgh team-mate Allan Dell has had groin surgery and Darryl Marfo, the man who surprised many by making the step from club fourth choice to more than competent Test starter in November, has an ongoing back problem, with an update awaited this week.
Glasgow’s 24-year-old Jamie Bhatti was another to relish the unlikely opportunity at the end of last year, winning three caps off the bench, while Edinburgh’s Rory Sutherland is working his way back from a year out and hasn’t featured since the first 1872 Cup game.
Like his former Glasgow mate Welsh, there could be a comeback for Gordon Reid, who has been playing regularly for London Irish and ex-Edinburgh man Kyle Traynor, now at Leicester, could be eying the chance to add to his four caps.
There is no respite at hooker, either, with Scotland’s most-capped player Ross Ford another long-term casualty and worrying noises from Glasgow coach Dave Rennie last week about the health of Fraser Brown, who has suffered multiple head injuries this season.
The good news, and you are always wary writing these words for fear of jinxing, is that Stuart McInally is in barnstorming form. George Turner, another of the November Tests unlikely lads, will be back from suspension, with pro-team squad stalwarts Pat MacArthur and Neil Cochrane in support.
Townsend is a man who exudes optimism and can point to the autumn games when a patched up front row was able to beat Samoa, smash the Wallabies and run the All Blacks close.
The Six Nations is different though. Weaknesses which could be coped with in a three-week dash of games will be given a much more intense testing in a seven-week campaign of brutally competitive matches against local rivals.
The front row is a murky, mysterious world to many but there is no doubting its importance. If an opposition trio gets on top, the penalties accrued and loss of field position can be fatal.
The autumn may have proved that Scotland’s depth has come on leaps and bounds, but it isn’t bottomless. The worry is that further injuries sustained during the campaign will create an intolerable situation.
The sheer number of front-row injuries suffered this season is a sign of the ferocious attrition of the modern game. Ahead of the weekend’s game at Zebre, Glasgow’s total injury list of first-team players numbered 13.
But that is part of a wider debate. For now, Scottish rugby supporters are just hoping that there are no more injuries and a front row can be put on the Principality Stadium park that is able to provide the platform for the thrilling play we saw in November and has the nation dreaming of glory again.