Scots World Cup hopes resting on wobbly props

I WATCHED the inter-city A-game on Monday last at Bridgehaugh and I saw the future. Zander Fagerson came on at tighthead prop for Glasgow and, against some illustrious opposition, held up the world.

WP Nel in action for Edinburgh. Picture: SNS

He did not take a single backward step. He has a long way to go but I fancy he will lock Scotland’s scrum at the Rugby World Cup.

Not next year, obviously, but in Japan 2019. The kid is only 18 years old, and will still be just 23 when the world’s best head for Japan. Tightheads don’t come into their own until their late twenties so Fagerson has a great career ahead of him if he can steer clear of injury.

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Quite who Vern Cotter will employ in the all-important No.3 shirt next year is anyone’s guess. If not a full-blown crisis, it is undoubtedly a problem for the Scotland coach and it has been exacerbated by the ordinary form of WP Nel, pictured right.

The project player is paid handsomely to lock the Edinburgh scrum but he has not risen to the challenge. Rather, he has gone in the other direction. For a first-class tighthead, Nel spends far too long chewing the cud and referees tire of that malarkey pretty quick. When Edinburgh were beaten by Connacht, who boast a powerful scrum, Nel came on in the second half and lasted 14 minutes before being yellow-carded.

Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons insisted that his side enjoyed a dominant scrum that day. I wasn’t convinced then and I am less convinced now after seeing the same Connacht loosehead, Denis Buckley, give Glasgow a torrid time at the scrum on Friday. I even elicited the opinion of one former Scotland prop who was witness to Nel’s woes against Connacht. “He got an old-fashioned doing,” was his reply.

Perhaps Nel feels the Guinness Pro12 is beneath his abilities – that he is too posh to push, as it were – or perhaps the tighthead is doing his damnedest and it simply isn’t very good.

It’s difficult to judge from the sidelines but, after speaking to various experts on the subject, I’d guess that the South African is a decent player who is playing well below his potential. He may also be struggling with the new etiquette at the scrum engage which is said to favour good looseheads but, after conceding an early free kick against the Scarlets on Friday, Nel helped the Edinburgh eight win two scrum penalties. He looked the part for 40 minutes on Friday so why does he appear so ordinary at other times? Is it simply down to the quality of the opposition?

And so to Scotland’s other main candidate. Euan Murray returned to Glasgow from Worcester at least partly because there was little interest from anyone else for a 34-year-old prop with a dodgy Achilles who was never the most mobile. He seems to have bought into the Glasgow work ethic but the veteran was tested by Connacht on Friday evening. In the first scrum he was penalised for standing up under extreme pressure.

Thereafter the big man improved but he never dominated his opposite number and, when Glasgow had a long series of scrums five metres from the Connacht line – I counted four in all – the home team held the ball at Adam Ashe’s feet, dipped their knees, squeezed everything they could squeeze and… nothing. They went nowhere. Murray was on the sidelines when Glasgow’s scrum conceded a penalty try.

The injury-prone prop will be 35 by the time the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off and, remember, he downs tools on Sundays. Scotland have one pool game on a Sunday, against the USA Eagles, who are not noted for their set-piece work. Unfortunately, the quarter-final involving the runner-up in Pool B, the slot that Scotland are targeting, also falls on a Sunday and the likely opposition, England, will take full advantage of the slightest chink in any opposition armour. Alex Corbisiero might just be the best loosehead in world rugby if his plasticine knee holds up.

The men waiting in the wings are not exactly tearing up trees. Moray Low and Geoff Cross can’t get a start for their respective clubs, Exeter Chiefs and London Irish. When Low came off the bench last week, his first act was to concede a scrum penalty and his second was to concede another. Low has made three appearances off the bench, Cross has made one and it lasted for 13 minutes.