“As I said during the tour we need and want to expand our playing pool and within that we have to be clear on which of our long-experienced players will make the journey to the World Cup. We have to make sure, too, that our young players, who have the ability to play international footy, get the mileage on the clock ahead of the World Cup.”
That is what Scott Johnson said when the Scotland squad was announced for the Autumn Tests. It is a quote lifted from the article on the SRU website announcing the 41 man squad at the end of October. As a result we ran a series of articles looking at which players might be drinking in the last chance saloon.
Johnson’s rhetoric seemed to promise so much. A chance, finally, for the likes of Fusaro and MacArthur to put pressure on incumbents. A chance to see if young bucks like Johnny Gray and Mark Bennett had the potential to step up. A final chance for Nick De Luca to transfer his club form onto the international stage.
But it turns out Johnson and his coaching staff had pre-picked the majority of their starting line ups for every game (barring injuries). Form was an irrelevance. What does this say to those picked? Put in a mediocre performance and you’ll do? What does it say to those who’ve not even been picked?
It smacks of poor management. It nullifies the threat Johnson gave to incumbent members of the squad and beats down the aspirations of youngsters pushing for a place. No one, it seems, is drinking in the last chance saloon. That rather defeats the purpose of the articles we’ve been running and there was risk this writer might snap and just write Ross Ford’s name in all five slots.
We are where we are. So let’s turn this on its head and look at five players who should have been given a chance.
1. Geoff Cross
Geoff Cross played 8 minutes of international rugby this Autumn. It’s hard to know what Scott Johnson learned about Girth in those 8 minutes. Perhaps Girth has nothing to prove. Perhaps Johnson knows what Girth can do. But the same could be said about Moray Low. Low is hardly a new addition to the Scotland team having amassed 22 caps to date, most of them as a substitute. Low put in a good shift in the scrum against South Africa but it was hard to see what contribution he made elsewhere. He made seven tackles in the whole match. Girth regularly hits double figures. But then arguably we don’t know how Girth might cope with the new scrum engagement laws at international level. We know Girth loves a scrum though and thrives on demolishing the opposition. The look of childish delight on his face after demolishing the Irish scrum in the Six Nations will live long in the memory.
Scotland are very short on options at tighthead. I am not suggesting that Girth is the answer in the absence of Euan Murray but Low is not the answer either and selecting him for a second game in a row tells us nothing we don’t already know.
2. Jon Welsh
Welsh made his Scotland debut against Italy at loosehead as a very very last minute replacement for Chunk. Scotland lost that game but Welsh gave Castrogiovanni a torrid time in the scrum. Welsh has since shifted to tighthead and despite being called into the Scotland squad during the summer and the squad for the Autumn Tests has yet to add to his tally of one cap. As with Girth I am not suggesting that Welsh is the future for Scotland but there’s no way of knowing unless he gets some game time.
3. Grant Shiells
Newcastle Falcon’s loosehead Shiells didn’t make the Autumn Test squad however he was called up last autumn due to injuries. Shiells has turned out for Scotland ‘A’ and is a regular fixture in a Newcastle team grinding out difficult wins in the Premiership. Dickinson has shown he is capable of filling in for Ryan Grant without setting the world on fire but a run of injuries could find Scotland without a specialist loosehead. This, Johnson said, was an opportunity to get young players some mileage on the clock ahead of the World Cup. The omission of Shiells feels like another in a long line of missed opportunities.
4. Chris Fusaro
Johnson has been quoted in the press as saying Fusaro has more to do before getting his opportunity. According to Johnson, Fusaro is not winning 50-50 competitions against “the big boys” and has to be “far better than anyone else” before being selected. Here he is shrugging off a tackle from Mike Ross and smashing past Rob Kearney to dot down for Glasgow http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGT9IGYuh5U. He also once had a crack at Scott MacLeod but sadly the video is no longer available.
It’s a rather baffling assessment of a player yet to play top-level international rugby. Players raise their game at international level and what’s to say Fusaro won’t? Johnson’s assessment may be right but surely an appearance off the bench would have given Fusaro an opportunity to show what he can do as well as putting some of that “mileage” on the clock. Johnson accepts Scotland lack depth at openside but omitting a player of Fusaro’s potential is hardly going to rectify that.
But look down the squad list for the match against Australia and Fusaro’s omission becomes clear. Kieran Lowe. A versatile player for sure but he only adds depth in areas where Scotland are hardly lacking in options. Lowe will come off the bench and be tied to Scotland forevermore but at a cost to the team as a whole for that game.
5. Pat MacArthur aka the Scottish Rugby Blog’s weekly Ross Ford Rant™
I suggested on Twitter that Ford was starting because Johnson reads this blog and just wanted to annoy me given I’ve had Ford in the last chance saloon for two weeks on the trot. I asked if anyone could offer a more plausible explanation. The only plausible (repeatable) suggestion was that Ford looks good on the posters.
Pat MacArthur should be starting against Australia, not warming the bench. Johnson says Ford only made one error at the line out (a squint throw) and did a lot of good work in the loose. Some commenters on here and elsewhere have backed this saying some of the blame for failed line outs shout lie with Hamilton and the jumpers and that Ford tackles and carries well. There is some truth in that, but a hooker has two main jobs no-one else does. Throw ins at line-outs and hooking. Some blame for line out failure may lie with Hamilton and the jumpers but is that a trust issue? Ford has been misfiring for a number of years. Some have suggested that Ford has been instructed not to hook and Scotland are relying on being able to drive over the ball. But when the ball is sitting dormant in the channel and the shove isn’t working you’d think he might at least give it a go. If Ford is still in the last chance saloon he’s long since passed out in the toilets covered in his own vomit.
In his brief time in a Scotland shirt MacArthur has shown he has the ability to compete at this level even demonstrating an openside’s scavenging instinct in the ruck. If Johnson is trying to test the strength and depth of his squad Ford’s continued selection makes no sense. Scott Lawson showed he might still have something to contribute from the bench but MacArthur has the potential and ability to become first choice and make a real difference in games. His selection on the bench is baffling.
An honourable mention must also go to Tom Heathcote and Greig Tonks. Heathcote must be ruing his decision to stay in England rather than making the move north but in terms of getting mileage you would have thought Johnson might have given him a run at some point even if it was from the bench. Tonks is also unfortunate not to get a run out while Maitland. We know what Maitland can do and he does it effectively, although once Hogg returns he’ll probably be posted back to the wing. It seems a shame then not to give Tonks a run to get mileage on the clock and chance to add more competition in the back three.