World Cup Squad Preview: Backs

The club season is done. The pro-team season is almost over, unless you happen to be challenging for a playoff place (hint: Edinburgh and Glasgow are not). All eyes turn now to the World Cup, at least in this part of the world.

Down south you have the Premiership and Heineken Cup still of interest with a few Scots involved and even further the Super 15 and Tri-Nations will undoubtedly have an impact on events in New Zealand this September. But for those of us focusing (for our sins) on Edinburgh and Glasgow, there remains just one week in which to play your way on or off the plane to New Zealand. There are of course the EMC internationals against Ireland and Italy, but these will be more likely to test combinations throughout the squad rather than Robbo showing his hand too early. With none of the cotton-wool five playing in the backs, it is all to play for.

So who is a dead cert to go, and who “could do better”?

Scrum Half

Apart from the second row this could be the most competitive area of the squad. We’ve currently got 3 good scrum-halves in Lawson, Blair and Cusiter and one very able backup in Greig Laidlaw who also has a newly found talent for placekicking and playing standoff – the very thing for the constricted squad requirements of a World Cup. Lawson is arguably the incumbent and the only player that has been consistently good all season for Gloucester and when asked to show up in a Scotland shirt. So you’d have to put him first on the plane. After that it gets trickier. Blair has been out of sorts since the Lions in 2009 but has shown sparks of the old Mike this season. Cusiter would be the obvious choice but he has only just returned from injury. At their peak, either of them might be ahead of Lawson but they aren’t at their peak currently. The recent conversion (temporary or otherwise) of Laidlaw must throw up interesting hypotheticals, offering a handy back-up 9 or 10 as he does (as well as the opportunity for commentators to talk about his uncle). But it may be just a bit too late to get him to New Zealand this time round..

On the plane: Rory Lawson (Gloucester)
Work to do: Mike Blair (Edinburgh), Chris Cusiter (Glasgow)
Outside bet: Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh)

Fly Half / Standoff / First 5/8th

They like fractions down under don’t they? This is the crunch position for most teams, but Scotland are so used to muddling along without a clear leader in the role that it almost becomes a case of “pick whoever and just get along as best we can”. Looking at Aussie who have the myriad delights of Quade Coooper, Matt Giteau or Kurtley Beale to choose between at 10 makes me sick, dammit. In the recent Six Nations though we saw the emergence of Ruaridh Jackson as a genuine contender – if far from the finished article – to long established incumbent Dan Parks. Jackson unarguably brought two things to the table: his own more attacking game, and forcing Parks to play a similar way to get back into the team. If fit, both will be on the plane regardless of form (Jackson played well in the Six Nations but has struggled a bit of late). If either man is not fit, we have a bit of a problem. World Class Phil surely won’t be back from injury in time. Mossy has proved an able backup in case of substitution or injury mid-game, but would he be considered for a full-time 10 slot pre-tournament? Southwell had that one game for the A team, Laidlaw has some game time there now and Jack Cuthbert has reportedly played 10 before. If it was a Hollywood movie someone would unearth Gordon Ross from London Welsh or give Duncan “MiniMoray” Weir a shot at glory. My bet would be given Mossy and Hugo will be on the plane anyway, if they only had one fit standoff it’ll be back to muddling through until Weir gets enough game time to bring the competition at Glasgow to the international stage. But either Weir or Laidlaw could go as a backup in that situation. Robbo doesn’t strike me as that much of a gambler, but his backs coach loony Toony could be.

On the plane: Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), Dan Parks (Cardiff Blues)
Work to do: Duncan Weir (Glasgow)
Outside bet: Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh)

Centres and Wings

What with all the shuffling that went on in the Six Nations it is hard to separate these areas. Numerous players who are usually one thing slotted in at either wing or centre, and while I’d like a centre to be a centre and not just a winger that can pass (or not), I’ve chosen to lump them all in together to make life easier, we’re looking at a squad not a team. Sean Lamont showed he could be useful as a centre if he passed a bit more, in the mould of Graeme Morrison who it turned out was very useful as a centre once we realised we missed him and is now back to fitness. Outside him, Ansbro showed enough to show he has the grunt to keep Scotland going forward while Max may find more space on the wing, and is still our most exciting player. Rory Lamont if fit will probably be there, but has not really made a mark on the international stage for a few years. It may come down to picking a team for each match with a variety of skill, size and pace on offer based on a communal pool of backs. Early on you might use Lamont or Evans as a centre in a rotation system but if your test centre partnership is Morrison and Ansbro, Lamont and Evans may settle on the wing in the later stages as the four top attacking and defensive possibilities.

On the plane: Graeme Morrison (Glasgow), Joe Ansbro (London Irish), Max Evans (Castres), Sean Lamont (Scarlets)
Work to do: Simon Danielli (Ulster), Nikki Walker (Ospreys), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Alex Grove (Worcester Warriors), Rory Lamont (Toulon)
Outside bet: Jim Thompson (Edinburgh)

Fullback

Another Rory Lamont injury and one Lee Byrne kick to the face later and Chris Paterson – previously written off by Robinson – made this jersey his own during the Six Nations. Oft criticised for a slowing of pace or not kicking far enough from tee or hand he has clearly worked on these things. Southwell will almost certainly be the deputy with it becoming and even contest once the squad is together, unless Rory Lamont rises from the ashes (again). Yes Mossy’s getting on a bit and this may well be his last World Cup, but if Chris Ashton is streaking down the touchline in Auckland this September and as a Scotland fan you want him tackled right NOW, who ya gonna call?

On the plane: Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Hugo Southwell (Stade Francais)
Work to do: Rory Lamont (Toulon)
Outside bet: Jim Thompson (Edinburgh), Jack Cuthbert (Bath)

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