THE ideal replacements bench is a mixture of defensive solidity and attacking thrust: of players who can shore up a lead, and those who can turn a game round. It also has something close to a balance between forwards and backs.
Given the circumstances in which Scotland find themselves – three games lost, the last against an Italian team which overpowered them up front late in the game – it is little wonder that Vern Cotter has gone for something far removed from that ideal for tomorrow’s game against England. The six-two split in favour of forwards is lopsided, and carries obvious risks if the injuries to backs start to mount up. But Cotter, having witnessed the damage inflicted on his team by the Italian maul and being all too aware of England’s strength in the same department, believes the priority has to be ensuring that the Scottish pack is not bullied out of the match at Twickenham.
Explaining his strategy yesterday, the coach did not use so blunt a phrase as ‘damage limitation’, which has clearly negative connotations. But he did talk about staying close and keeping the game tight, making it plain that his strategy is to thwart England up front and then hope for one or two flashes of brilliance from the backs.
“England are a big physical team and they play a very percentage-orientated game, based on occupation, field position and a strong pack,” Cotter said. “They also have very good finishers in their team, strong runners, line-breakers. So they’re a team based around their power, their line-out and their scrum.
“We’ve been looking at trying to compete – and put them under pressure in what they consider to be their strong points. Hopefully, if we can contest there and keep the game as tight as possible for as long as possible, you never know. We want to stay close and finish this game with strength and experience.”
Most of the forwards replacements are self-explanatory. Ryan Grant and Geoff Cross cover at prop, Fraser Brown at hooker, Tim Swinson – ousted from the starting line-up by Jim Hamilton – at lock.
Then come two back rows, Johnnie Beattie and Adam Ashe. Normally, only one would be chosen, but in this instance Beattie can provide some cover for the centres as well as on the flanks and at No 8. Ashe’s priority will be to deputise for David Denton at No 8, but both Ashe and Denton are short of match fitness following injury.
The former will probably replace Denton after around 50 minutes, while Beattie could come on for Rob Harley or Blair Cowan. But such calculations will soon unravel if too many backs need replaced.
“Beattie is a midfield replacement: emergency cover,” Cotter continued. “He knows he could be marking Billy Twelvetrees or Billy Vunipola.
“I know he’s got a good boot on him. We know he’s a very skilful player. The 6-2 on the bench, we want to have some physical density and some experience at the end of this match. So he and Adam Ashe, who has come back and has aggressive defence and is good on the ball, are there to put pressure on England.”
Backs replacement Sam Hidalgo-Clyne is essentially scrum-half cover for Greig Laidlaw, leaving Greig Tonks as first choice to cover the rest of the back division. Only once Tonks is on would Beattie become next in line to replace a back.
Cotter’s selection shows the importance he is placing on physical power, and he has left his squad in no doubt about the need to raise their game. All the same, the coach insisted that any talk about ‘brutal’ training sessions was wide of the mark.
“Those things are always a little exaggerated. We were just very clear on what we want to see and what we expect. We need to learn from certain things. That was the theme behind this week’s training.
“We’re playing what is probably one of the best teams in the world as they’re preparing for the World Cup. It’s a great measuring stick.
“It’s good to have Dave Denton back as he provides us with strong ball-carrying and strong defence”Vern Cotter
“We were disappointed with [the performance against] Italy. We were two minutes away from lauding the character of a young team for getting out of a tough situation with a scrum penalty.
“We’ve had a good look at ourselves. Everybody. The coaches, the players, everybody.”
Scotland squads down the decades have tended to raise their games when playing England, but Cotter added that the urge to bounce back from that loss to Italy was just as strong a factor in the added spring in their step that the players have had in training this week. “There is the Calcutta Cup and the result two weeks ago. That means there has been more of an edge to training.
“It’s always nice to have an objective. We are two days away from playing for something that we could bring home. We are looking at what we can improve on to show that we have learnt from some of the mistakes we may have made.”
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Dougie Fife
13 Mark Bennett
12 Matt Scott
11 Tommy Seymour
10 Finn Russell
9 Greig Laidlaw
1 Alasdair Dickinson
2 Ross Ford
3 Euan Murray
4 Jim Hamilton
5 Jonny Gray
6 Robert Harley
7 Blair Cowan
8 David Denton
16 Fraser Brown
17 Ryan Grant
18 Geoff Cross
19 Tim Swinson
20 Johnnie Beattie
21 Adam Ashe
22 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne
23 Greig Tonks
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