Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Our Scotland XV: Back Row

Johnnie Beattie - photo © Alastair Ross

Selections for some positions in the Scottish national side have left a number of coaches wishing they could take Monty Brewster’s advice and opt for “none of the above.” Indeed that is exactly the choice some have gone for hammering a large number of square pegs into round holes.

The back row has been somewhat different with Scotland producing a steady stream of decent players. However that comes with its own problems and Robinson and Johnson have been guilty of hammering a number of 6’s into 7’s in an attempt to play their favourite players rather than acknowledging the merits of a balanced back row.


Alasdair Strokosch has served the Scottish defence well in recent years even if some of his back row colleagues have failed to match his intensity against the likes of Tonga and Samoa. An out and out blindside with the ability to drive the opposition backwards he was sorely missed during the Six Nations after getting injured in the first match.

Tim Swinson and Rob Harley have both impressed in blue shirts over the past twelve months and might fight it out for a place on the bench with their ability to play lock. However Kelly Brown and David Denton have the ability to cover both 6 and 8 so it’s by no means a straightforward choice. The wild card in Johnson’s back row pack is Kieran Low. Like Swinson and Harley he can offer cover at lock but is very much an unknown quantity having only appeared a handful of times for London Irish. Is this a case of “Shingerling” by Scotland? It certainly feels like it. Time will tell whether it was worth it but Denton, Harley and Swinson would feel rightly aggrieved if he jumped the queue just for the sake of tying him down.


The positives of having an out and out open-side flanker have often been ignored by Scotland. New Zealand and Wales have shown what can be done with a proper scavenger getting to the breakdown quickly and fighting for every ball. A lack of an openside cost Scotland against Tonga and Samoa, with both sides challenging for every ball at the breakdown like it was the last slice of cake at a poorly stocked buffet.

John Barclay is a solid option and has managed to nail down his place in a competitive back row at Scarlets but Scotland’s in form openside is Chris Fusaro. Injury has kept Fusaro out of contention in the past but his performances for Glasgow so far this season have been superb and despite his diminutive stature he is a tenacious player with the ability to snaffle opposition ball like a Dickensian orphan going after a pocket handkerchief. Ross Rennie is back in training and if he can recover the form he showed before his injury he’ll push Fusaro all the way.

Sadly Blair Cowan is not the keyboardist from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions but perhaps another case of “Shingerling”. Cowan is older than fellow “Shingler” Lowe and at 27 more likely to feature at some point during the Autumn Tests rather than waiting for February’s “A” game. This writer is going to continue to bang the drum for Roddy Grant and it seems Cowan has been given the nod ahead of the Edinburgh man who was absent last weekend for the birth of his child (congrats Roddy). Grant has the potential to be a great international 7 but needs to be given the chance to show what he can do at the next level. Cowan’s selection has blocked the development of a home grown player and that is a great shame.

Number 8

Johnnie Beattie has given Scotland stability at the back of the scrum showing some excellent footballing skills and offers plenty of threat in attack even if his handling and kicking let him down at times. An injury has limited his appearances in France this season but fellow exile Kelly Brown has been in and out of a very competative Saracens back row. It’s a difficult choice but Beattie edges it with Brown falling to the bench with his ability to cover any position in the back row. Denton continues to improve and is starting to show some of the skill that caused England all sorts of problems at Murrayfield in 2012 and might make the bench against Japan. Blair Cowan can also play 8 but again it would be a shame to see him jump in front of a resurgent Denton just for the sake of tying him to Scotland.

Outside the training squad announced by Johnson there are still a number of players knocking on the door. Ryan Wilson is listed as injured so clearly still features in Johnson/Cotter’s future plans. We’ve already mentioned Roddy Grant but Richie Vernon has added extra competition in an already packed back row at Glasgow and Ally Hogg at Newcastle Falcons is worth consideration as a specialist “8” especially if Beattie succumbs to injury.

Our team so far: 10. Heathcote, 9. Laidlaw; 8. Beattie, 7. Fusaro. 6. Strokosch, 3. Cross, 2. MacArthur, 1. Grant

Bench: Dickinson, Ford, Welsh, Cusiter, Weir, Brown

13 Responses

  1. Picking Beattie would be picking on reputation instead of form, something we should be trying to avoid. Denton’s played very well for Edinburgh this season, and with Kelly Brown as captain I don’t think Stroker will start at 6.

    I like Fusaro, but I worry that he’d get blown away by the SA forwards.

    I’d pick 6. Brown (c), 7. Barclay and 8. Denton.

  2. Over the past few years, we seem to have been selecting individuals in the back row instead of looking for a back row unit.

    The extreme example of this was the period we had Rennie and Denton in the back row 2 seasons ago when there stellar individual performances caught the eye, but ultimately we still lost!!

    To be fair, I’m struggling to name a trio that might perform as a unit (luckily its not my job to do so) but i do think we need to concentrate more on this aspect. Did the “killer B’s” perfomr as a unit or was it just a catchy nickname??

    The potential emergence of a creative Scottish midfield also points to the requirement for an effective unit. No point in Fusaro (or whoever) getting there first and getting blown away or lacking support.

  3. Beattie is just back from injury is he not? Not sure if there is a reason to doubt his form as such, he just hasn’t been playing. I do think he is a luxury we can’t afford though as he is not the most combative number 8 despite us all enjoying his fancy one-handed ball carrying. Denton has the power and aggression and needs to get used to performing in high intensity games. There is no substitute for experience.

    Fusaro deserves a shot, we know what Barclay can do. He is a good test player that sadly failed to reach the heights we hoped. Fusaro has the potential to surpass him and Japan, SA and Australia seems like a good place to start. If it goes badly, Barclay is still waiting in the wings.

    Brown is a great Captain, had amazing tackle and turnover stats as in last year’s 6N and can carry a bit. No doubt he is one of our few proven test match warriors and should be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

    So for these AIs’ I’d pick
    6. Brown
    8. Denton
    7. Fusaro

    For the 6N I’d hope Rennie and Wilson come back in the frame too.

  4. Interesting comments. I got hammered for not picking Fusaro last time we did this. I hinted he might be too wee for an international 7 but when I’ve seen him play recently I’ve been persuaded otherwise.

  5. Based on performance in the summer, Strockosch has to get a run.

    Yet to be convinced by Fusaro as an international, but would be good to see him have a go, either starting against Japan or off the bench in one of the other games.

    Brown has the most exceptional work rate and is probably the best all round back row forward of all of them, but there is an argument that he’s not the best 6,7 or 8. Having said that, if there was one player you’d want to make a tackle or get over the ball and slow it down when your team’s in trouble, he’s your man.

  6. Strokosch definitely has a role to play but for me Brown just brings so much more. Last 6N we were desperate at the breakdown so we need players that can carry and compete on the floor, neither of which are really Strokosch’s forte.

    Also, on the horizon is Strauss who on current form will demand inclusion at 8. It is fortunate given the bruising character of our world cup pool that we’ll be able to replace our whole back row and locks without much drop off in quality. Hopefully, we’ll have a bit more confidence in our front row by then as well.

  7. I think the back row is the strongest area of the squad, and, as for all positions you’ve got to pick on form and game fitness/ game time. Therefore I go for 6. Brown 7. Fusaro 8. Denton with Barclay on the bench (Barclay can cover 8 as well based on the end of last season, so got cover for all positions with reshuffles). Think the strongest line up would be Brown, Rennie and Beattie though and hope that can happen for the 6 nations. IMO Rennie has been badly missed in the last year.

    Do also like the idea of players who can play lock and 6, re Jason White!

  8. I think again it all depends on what sort of gameplan they go for and whether they look to attack or kick the majority of possession away. My personal choice would be Brown, Fusaro, Beattie. Fusaro never seems to have a bad game and is generally in the running for mom each glasgow game. Brown as captain and also takes on a tremendous workload. I feel he offers more than Strokosch who doesn’t carry a huge amount of ball. Beattie is a quality all round rugby player. Denton has been playing well but other than carrying hard what else does he really offer?

  9. Denton has been playing well but other than carrying hard what else does he really offer?

    He tackles like a demon!

  10. I think regardless of who plays 7, I agree he has to be an out and out openside. Personally I’d pick Barclay ahead of Fusaro, just! Brown at 6 ahead of Strokosch, and Beattie ahead of Denton. Tbh I would also have Ally Hogg ahead of Denton at the moment. I just think Denton has a bit of developing still to do. That said, it’s got to be a good thing, and testament to our strength in the back row, that I really wouldn’t be too unhappy if both Fusaro and Strokosch started.

  11. I think you’re being unfair on Robinson and Johnson on their selection decisions. Feel free to correct me, but I’m struggling to think of any game since around 2008 when we’ve freely picked a 6 at 7. The problem’s been injuries to our opensides – Rennie’s had a horrendous run, and Barclay’s had a few too. There was one point earlier this year when the only fit Scottish specialist 7 with any professional rugby experience at all was Alan MacDonald, last seen turning out for Trinity College Dublin after giving up the pro game. I think the coaches were fully aware of the problems in putting Strokosch or Harley at 7, but they genuinely had no alternative option.

  12. “Grant has the potential to be a great international 7” – really? Not even sure that Roddy is a ‘great’ club player yet tbh. I think balance has to be the key here, rather than selecting favoured individuals and trying to squeeze players into positions where they have little test match experience. So blindside for me is a battle between Kelly Brown, Stroks and Bob Harley, while openside is a Barclay vs Fusaro choice. No8 at the moment is a straight contest between Denton and Beattie, which the former edges for me on the basis of playing time this season and form

You might also like these:

The Scotland team to face Chile this weekend has been announced and features 10 changes from the side that beat the USA last weekend.
Rory watches as Scotland reach the half way point in their tour with victory over the USA in Washington.
Craig is joined by Rory and Iain to look at the latest news including Scotland's win over Canada and the upcoming test against the USA.
Gregor Townsend has picked the strongest XV possible from his touring squad for the visit to Washington DC to play the USA, writes Rory.

Scottish Rugby News and Opinion