The biggest surprise of Vern Cotter’s squad announcement was that he had opted for just one open side flanker in his selection. Does this mean that New Zealand born flanker John Hardie plays in this position for every game?
If not, then I believe we leave a gaping hole in our armoury as a specialist ‘7’ is such a key position for Scotland during this Rugby World Cup campaign. The contact area is where ball is won or lost and having an open side flanker with intuitive radar to hone onto the ball is such an asset.
Hardie’s selection having never played a game of rugby in Scotland will test even the most ardent Scottish supporter’s loyalty. Spare a thought for John Barclay and Hamish Watson whose hard work and endeavour over the summer months and in the warm up internationals has seen them discarded for a player whose original desire was to be an All Black. The only way Hardie can claim the adulation of the fans will be his performances on the pitch.
At least Josh Strauss has got the fans on his side and whilst I do not agree with the 3 year residency rule that allows a player to opt for the country where he plies his trade, he is at least a model of consistency and is rewarded for that.
Strauss is big ball carrier who always gets over the gain line and will battle it out with David Denton for the starting shirt. Denton is back to his best but is prone to the odd slip in concentration but in both players I’d like to see their offloads become more prominent in a style similar to that of Kieran Reid, the New Zealand No 8.
The other surprise back-row omissions were Bair Cowan and Rob Harley but Cotter has selected players in form who have the physicality to carry ball into contact and win the collision area.
The Gray brothers in the second row were both shoo-ins as was Grant Gilchrist who I thought played extremely well in the home victory over Italy. Whilst many may raise an eyebrow of Tim Swinson’s selection ahead of Jim Hamilton, I like Swinson. He is a better ball carrier and is more of a traditional work horse type of lock than lumbering ‘big Jim’.
In the front row there are no real surprises but it is time for Ali Dickinson, Ross Ford and Ryan Grant to use all that experience to impose themselves on opposition front rows. A special mention for Stuart McInally, whose decision to move from flanker to hooker a couple of seasons ago has been rewarded with a world cup place. Ford will still be Scotland’s first choice hooker but McInally really looks the part and it would not surprise me if he jumps ahead of Fraser Brown and challenges Ford for a starting berth.
In the backs Scotland have a settled look and it was good to see both Mark Bennet and Matt Scott time their return from injury to secure selection. Richie Vernon completes his transition from back row to secure a centre berth and whilst he may not have deftness in his play he is a handful for opposition centres.
Peter Horne gives valuable options in the mid-field as well as a back up to the fly-half berth and Finn Russell’s game management will allow a more open game to be played with Duncan Weir in support. I am sure there would have been temptation to select Alex Dunbar but with the pressure off he can time his return to play when he wants without temptation to play a comeback game in the spotlight of the world cup.
Our wingers look hungry and adventurous and whilst I am not a great fan of Tim Visser in his defensive alignment and kicking and catching duties; when he comes off his wing looking for work he can score tries. Sean Maitland is another who needs to ‘spark’ in the same way as Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg do every time they get the ball and don’t under estimate the boost of confidence you get by scoring 6 tries as the team did last Saturday.
Finally, wherever you are on the debate at scrum half, Cotter’s selection of Greig Laidlaw as Scotland Captain places him as the no 1 scrum half. Pyrgos and Hidalgo-Clyne will both be involved and it will be vitally important that when they take the field they influence play and push for a win. It’s not a 15man game anymore – its 31 and every Scotland player has a responsibility to play to his potential!