Picking Scotland’s starting second-rows for the November test-matches is something of an unenviable task. Fortunately, that’s a good thing. Though there are many areas where a nation such as ours can be short on quality and depth, jersey numbers four and five do not fall into that category, and indeed Scotland have oft enjoyed a fine array of locks from which to select.
The form man is without question Glasgow Warriors’ Tim Swinson. He has been a stand-out in the opening exchanges of the club’s RaboDirect Pro12 and Heineken Cup campaigns, and impressed on his first few Scotland outings this summer.
However, Swinson doesn’t possess the aerial abilities or all-round athleticism of several of his rivals, which could count seriously against him given the strength of the competition. Though excellent in open play, he may come unstuck in the lineout facing such peerless opponents.
Scott Johnson tends to pick on form rather than status, though, and Swinson’s consistently high level of performance must be giving the coach that most irritable of sporting clichés, the “selection headache”.
In my book, at least, the ex-Newcastle Falcons man is worthy of starting against Japan on November 9th as reward for his club showings, though he will do well to claim a spot against the bigger sides. And so, with one berth filled, one realises just how fierce the competition for place number two becomes.
Firstly, there is Scotland’s most recognisable face – or at least, haircut – in a rugby capacity, the hulking blonde bombshell, Richie Gray. At his best, Gray is a formidable dynamic influence around the pitch, and an important lineout option. But the behemoth suffered through loss of form and injury last season, making the British and Irish Lions squad more on reputation than the strength of his performances. That said, Gray is playing well in a physical league at Castres, and Scotland can ill afford to ignore any world-class individual.
Jim Hamilton enjoyed his best run of games in a Scotland jersey last term, and proved that there is more to his play than the bruising donkey-work so valued by team-mates but so frequently unheeded by supporters. The impact his sizeable bulk has on the Scottish scrum must not be overlooked either – an area where parity with South Africa and supremacy over Australia is essential. It will certainly be difficult to omit him from the engine room when the Springboks arrive in Edinburgh armed with the biggest pack in world rugby.
Warriors captain Al Kellock is a fine player in his own right, but has slipped down the pecking order since skippering Scotland under Andy Robinson, and is approaching the twilight of his career at 32. Arguably, he is more valuable for his leadership than his ability, and will struggle to win himself a place in the 23 alongside the precocious pair of Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray, and the unknown London Irish recruit Kieran Low set to snap at the heels of their more established compatriots.
As with most selections, the old adage “horses for courses” rings true. While some call for the fielding of a side with a more “developmental” air to it against Japan, they would do well to remember Scotland’s first opponents are no pushovers. In fact, they overcame a “developmental” Welsh side barely a few months ago. It is more likely that Scott Johnson will plump for by and large his strongest XV, with perhaps a more youthful set of replacements.
Against South Africa, every ounce of power and strength will be needed to shackle a ferocious eight, and that should see Jim Hamilton restored to the lineup. I do feel Swinson warrants a start, though, and I’d like to see him named against Japan alongside Gray Snr. How those three fare in the opening salvos will determine who gets the nod when the Wallabies come calling. Kellock, Gray Jnr and Gilchrist are an accomplished set of reserves, and with Cowan and Low also in the mix, the number of worthy combinations one could justifiably plump for is plenty cause for optimism.
Our team so far: 10. Heathcote, 9. Laidlaw, 8. Beattie, 7. Fusaro, 6. Strokosch, 5. R Gray, 4. Swinson, 3. Cross, 2. MacArthur, 1. Grant
Bench: Dickinson, Ford, Welsh, Hamilton, Brown, Cusiter, Weir