Young pretenders take centre stage for Scotland

Vern Cotter 'exploring opportunities and options' on tour. Picture: SNS/SRU
Vern Cotter 'exploring opportunities and options' on tour. Picture: SNS/SRU
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IT WAS always a split tour, but it has also turned out that Scotland’s round-the-world trip is divided not just between the Exiles who dominated the first part of the trip and the home-based players who take over for the second, but also between the old brigade and the new.

That is demonstrated not just in Vern Cotter’s choice of captain in 23-year-old, six-times-capped Grant Gilchrist, but in the whole back five of the pack who have a princely 18 caps to share between them. Take out Nick De Luca, who may have 41 caps but is also a man on a mission after being dumped by Edinburgh and losing his international place, and the rest of the back division average fewer than ten caps each.

“I think it is exciting times for Scotland,” said Cotter. “The guys who have come in are full of enthusiasm and have fresh legs. We are playing another opposition, so we are preparing slightly differently, but some of the principles remain the same – simple things done exceptionally well.

“The whole objective of this tour is to explore opportunities and options. There is a lot of excitement in the group that has just turned up. They are rested and fresh.

“Nothing comes from nothing and I feel the players are trying to develop things. That is important.

“Did it come off every time last week: no. We found ourselves in four try-scoring situations where perhaps, if we replayed them, we would take different options. That is important. We are seeing opportunities but not executing to get the reward, but the important thing is that we are producing opportunities.”

His take is that the first two games have demonstrated that the fundamentals are sound, but the error rate when it really matters is stopping the side from earning due reward. So they create scoring chances but then miss the support player with the pass; the defence is getting up into the opposition’s faces with commendable speed, but then somebody misses a one-on-one tackle. At the moment, it is a jigsaw that is not quite fitting together but, with a little bit of fine tuning to round off the rough edges, can click into place quickly and easily.

“I feel sorry for the players who went home after the Canada game because we did not execute as well as we would like to have done and I’m sure they would have liked to stay on to perfect it,” he said. “We have looked at the clips of what we did against Canada and at what we wanted to achieve and we will take that forward.

“We had several balls that went straight into touch, four times we were close to their line and we made a couple of defensive errors, but there were some very good positive things out of the game as well. The defensive line was coming up more aggressively with more line speed; there has been a shift in a couple of things and we need just to keep pushing forward. We are not going to succeed straight off.

“There are some very good things in place; we have good players. It is a matter of finding a way to express themselves, find a Scotland way to play. I think it is an exciting time for Scotland.”

Whether they can turn that round in a week against a fast-improving Argentina side is a different question. The Pumas may have left out most of their big-name European-based stars but that is not the issue for them that it would have been only a couple of years ago.

Since they joined the Rugby Championship to play regular home and away fixtures against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, who usually occupy three of the top four places in the world rankings, the focus of their development has changed. While it used to be to find players and export them to get professional training and experience, they are now trying to do all that at home and the side they are likely to pick has a rugged, aggressive look to it.

As Cotter pointed out, that makes them dangerous and none of the players who so nearly beat Ireland last week is going to feel intimidated by the Scots. So you may not have heard of many of the Pumas, but, like Scotland, they are picking for the future.

“They have had three weeks together and are performing better,” he said. “They may not have some of their better-known players available but the ones they do have did not lose by very much to Ireland and they will be better for that experience. They will be ready for this game because they have lost their two previous games and will want to put that right. Rugby is developing rapidly in Argentina now that they are involved in the Four Nations. They are very ambitious and I am sure that the players out there now will not want to give opportunities to some of the better-known players. They will be fighting hard to keep their places.”

The same goes for the Scots. This may be a young team, but with units like Gilchrist and Jonny Gray in the second row, it could form the core of the side that Cotter takes to the Rugby World Cup next year.

The old timers were proved fallible last week; it is time for the new kids to show what they can do.