There may be a dearth of talent in other positions but the Scottish back-row seems to have been going through a purple patch over the past few years. That in itself comes with its own problems when trying to choose the best side and poor selection was consistently flagged as one of Andy Robinson’s major faults.
Despite this wealth of talent, consistency has been a major issue. There was a degree of parity against the All Blacks and South Africa in the autumn but Tonga destroyed Scotland at the breakdown. Some of that destruction may stem from the referees’ liberal interpretation of the laws of the game but strict adherence to the rules does not make for a good back row.
Just ask Richie McCaw. Anyway, having got the opensides out of the way, what about the other back row berths?
Blindside flanker (Number 6): Primarily a defensive role in charge of watching the opposition 8 and 9 at the scrum and smashing runners backwards in defence. Contributions in attack are generally limited to making small yards by punching holes in the defence.
The Big Stroker has a hard head on a big set of shoulders (just ask Joe Ansbro). A true blindsider. Consistent in defence but in the traditions of the position his attack play tends to be limited to smash and ruck. Despite his former life as a cage fighter he was part of the back three that allowed themselves to be bullied by Tonga.
Alongside Stuart Hogg, Denton was one of the only positives to come out of Scotland’s last 6 Nations campaign. He plays most of his club rugby at 6 and although he was largely anonymous during the 1872 cup matches he tends to raise his game in a Scotland shirt. Had a quieter autumn test compared to his electrifying performances in the spring so the surprise factor may have gone. Steady in defence but not as hard headed as Strokosch he does make good yardage with ball in hand although he often finds himself isolated.
Very much Edinburgh’s Fusaro. Gunner’s fans were baffled by his omission during the autumn tests especially as he’d been keeping Denton out of the Edinburgh number 8 shirt. He was off the pace in the first 1872 cup match and outsiders often question what Edinburgh fans and Michael Bradley see that they can’t. He can play in any position across the back row so may offer some versatility from the bench, although it may be a case of jack of all trades, master of none.
Also considered: Ross Rennie (Injured), James Eddie
The art of hooking may be dead and the same might be said of specialist 8’s. Most back row players are fairly versatile and coaches will often switch 6’s and 7’s to 8 in order to suit the type of defensive or attacking game plan they want to play. However the benefits of good awareness and footballing skills at the base of the scrum when an opposition scrum half is snipping at your ankles should not be underestimated.
There are no arguments here. Johnnie Beattie must be Scotland’s first choice 8. His reputation suffered a little in this country when he was brought back into the side too early after injury and was frozen out of the Glasgow squad by Sean Lineen. His move to France has paid dividends. He’s recovered his form and then some forcing Georgia’s legendary number 8 Mamuka Gorgodze into second row at Montpellier.
Alongside the other positives highlighted above, Denton’s puppyish enthusiasm is commendable. However his footballing skills let him down and he seems to find himself isolated whenever he breaks from the scrum making him a questionable choice at 8.
Ryan Wilson may be in rare form for Glasgow but it takes something special to hold down a place in a talented Top 14 side which is the only reason why he misses out to Beattie. Many questioned the benefit of project signings but the arrival of Strauss and competition for places has benefited Wilson with the big South African being pushed from 6 to 8 at Glasgow to accommodate the young Scot. Has had a fantastic season and would be unlucky not to beat Denton to a place on the bench.
Also considered: Ally Hogg, Stuart McInally, Kelly Brown
Not considered due to Tom putting him in 2nd row : Rob Harley
Our picks: (6) Alasdair Strokosch (8) Johnnie Beattie. Strokosch comes in because of his defensive abilities and Johnnie Beattie on his current form. Ryan Wilson should feel rightly aggrieved if Denton or McInally were to make the bench ahead of him.
Team so far: Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Richie Gray, Rob Harley, Al Strokosch, Roddy Grant, Johnnie Beattie