Vern Cotter has brought in the muscle for the Scotland squad in a period where he hopes to shape Scotland into a team able to surprise a few people...
On Tuesday Vern Cotter rolled out his ‘long list’ of 46 players to deliver the undeliverable: the oft-mocked SRU aim of Scotland winning the Rugby World Cup. An extensive and no doubt, intense, training camp – a spell in the clouds at altitude in France and then two months grunt in Scotland. It will represent the longest continuous period Cotter will have with the squad since taking the reins.
Now is his chance to really put his imprint down on his squad; could we see a quite different Scotland come the autumn?
The Foreign Legion
There is talk of foreign imports whenever a Scotland squad is announced these days. Hugh Blake – object of controversy from the Six Nations – survives, or should I say returns, despite having had no more game time at Glasgow than he did at Edinburgh, save a cameo at the Melrose Sevens. Blake is already qualified, through no fault of his own, but faces criticism for having done little (yet) to merit the call-up.
Scotland fans welcome the inclusion of the first two “project players” a little more pragmatically, as Josh Strauss and WP Nel have performed regularly and well for their clubs. Even if Strauss won’t be eligible to don the navy blue until the tournament proper, his consistent ability to make ground with the ball would see him walk into most people’s Scotland XVs and Nel should fit the tighthead spot left by the retiring Euan Murray nicely. That is, assuming he can get past Mike Cusack, a hard-scrummaging Yorkshireman who has also qualified on residency.
There are a good group of names left out: Johnnie Beattie, Ben Toolis, Kelly Brown, Chris Fusaro, Geoff Cross and Edinburgh favourite Roddy Grant. Beattie and Brown have apparently been left out due to lack of form, Grant for a perceived lack of versatility. Grant has played 6, 7 and 8 for Edinburgh, but perhaps like Fusaro he suffers from misplaced worries about his size – both are 5’11” but in mitigation, tackle like demons. The exclusion of both outrages some fans especially when “form” is used to exclude some players but others get a pass, but, we know Cotter likes his opensides beefy.
The Old Dogs
Which leads us to the return of John Barclay, the Scarlets Management Player of the Season. Despite featuring mostly at No 8 when we need him as a 7, many Scotland fans are just glad to see him back in a squad for the first time since 2013. His versatility gives him a good chance for a long campaign like the World Cup, but expect a tussle with Blair Cowan for that openside shirt. Realistically he may be more valuable off the bench and for his experience – this would be his third World Cup. At 28, he’s never wholly fulfilled his early potential at test level, but I wouldn’t bet against a late renaissance now he’s been given another chance
Also back in the fold and chasing a third tournament are Chris Cusiter and Jim Hamilton, part of a group who can provide valuable advice to their younger colleagues experiencing it for the first time. We know the young backs can play, but as we saw in the Six Nations, mental stability is often the issue. Even if the old hands only stick around for the initial camp, the experience they bring could be invaluable.
Or as we like to refer to it in Scotland as ‘the midfield’. Centre has gone from a position of strength to something that will add worry lines to the brow of Coter, with Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott and Mark Bennett all on the physios couch.
Richie Vernon impressed with his pace as a back row in Invercargill in 2011 and returns this time as a centre. He is sufficiently impressive (and versatile) to expect he’ll give Saracens’ Duncan Taylor a run for his money if Cotter wants a bash-up centre. Worryingly Pete Horne remains the only midfield conjuror, unless the medical team can work some magic of their own.
Large chunks of the second row contingent are also on the way back from injury and short of match fitness, as are two thirds of the fly-halves. Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir aim to challenge Finn Russell, but following approximately 86 minutes of brilliance across the last two Glasgow games, he is the first name on the team sheet now.
Before the tournament the squad will be trimmed to 31, but with many differing reports on who will be ready in time for either the warm up tests in August or the tournament in September – allegedly they all will be – the exact makeup of that group is hard to guess.
Guinness PRO12 winners Glasgow provide 22 of the 46 places, and you wouldn’t bet on that extra confidence ensuring plenty representation when the World Cup rolls around in September.