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.
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