Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


5 Questions The Autumn Tests Will Answer

The Autumn Tests have snuck up on us like silent ninja assassins. It doesn’t really feel like the Guinness Pro 12 or the new European (Poopy) Cup have really got going, Matt Scott is still not fit, and yet International Rugby is upon us once again.

These Autumn Tests take on a degree of importance as it’s probably the last chance Scotland will have to face up to Southern Hemisphere opposition before next year’s World Cup. It’s certainly the last opportunity for Scotland to test themselves against the best team in the world before then.

There have been two lots of Autumn Internationals since the last World Cup, and it’s hard to know what Scotland gained from those tests. There were tries against the All Blacks in a heavy defeat that somehow felt like a win, two completely ineffectual displays against the Springboks and THAT defeat to Tonga.

Vern Cotter cannot afford to play around with players and positions any more. There isn’t time. Scotland need to know who their strongest team is going into the 6 Nations (or before) and there are still a number of questions that he needs to answer.

1. Russell? Heathcote? Weir?

The last time Scotland had an incumbent fly half you had to use your hands to operate mobile phones and games consoles. Since then a number of players have tried and failed to pin down the number 10 jersey without really making it their own. The mercurial Dan Parks, “world class” Phil Godman, Chris Paterson and Ruaridh Jackson have all come and gone, although the latter may still rise again after injury.

However for the first time in a decade it feels like there is genuine competition at 10. With that comes the problem of who to select. Finn Russell seemed to come from nowhere at the end of last season and has been picking up lots of praise for his performances in a Glasgow shirt. However Heathcote is benefitting from a run of games at Edinburgh and whilst he may lack Russell’s flair he offers a steady pair of hands. Duncan Weir was first choice during the Six Nations but the emergence of Russell and more game time for Heathcote has seen him loose his grip on the jersey altogether. All three are reliable kickers, which opens up scrum-half to pick on form too.

In many ways the three players are not comparable. They offer different skill sets and options for Vern Cotter to choose from. However the likes of South Africa and New Zealand do not chop and change players in such a vital position unless that change is forced by injury. Cotter needs to settle on his first choice and pick a regular scrum half to play alongside him.

2. Are Blair Cowan and Kieran Low good enough?

The London Irish duo were drafted in by Scott Johnson who obviously saw something in them to warrant a call up. What that something was is still something of a mystery. There’s a scene in Waynes World 2 where Mike Myers turns to camera whilst speaking to a mechanic and says “do we have to put up with this? I mean, can’t we get a better actor? I know it’s a small part, but I think we can do better than this.” That sums up how most fans and commentators view both players.

Cowan has been winning praise for his performances at London Irish this season but performing in the Aviva Premiership is very different to playing well at international level. There are scores of perfectly good players who’ve been found wanting after making the step up. Is Cowan better than John Barclay, Kelly Brown, Chris Fusaro? Is he better than the injured Ross Rennie? It’s hard to see any evidence to support his continued involvement in the squad, barring injuries. It’s certainly difficult to see why he has been selected ahead of John Barclay.

Keiran Low’s inclusion is more baffling when you consider that he has had limited game time for London Irish so far this season. Low played number 8 against Argentina in the summer following a freak run of injuries. He ran a total of 8 metres with ball in hand. That is criminally low for an international number 8.

The arguments put forward for both Cowan and Low is that they can cover a number of positions in the pack. However if they are not up to international standard or ahead of at least one competitor for a shirt they are covering then that versatility is pointless.

3. Why is there only one openside in the squad?

With the possible exception of England it’s difficult to think of any top international side that doesn’t have an out and out fetcher playing in the number 7 jersey. That’s why it’s hard to see why Chris Fusaro is the only out and out openside in the squad, especially with John Barclay putting in superb performances week in week out at the Scarlets. Hamish Watson was “invited to train” with the squad, whatever that means, but has dropped out injured with no replacement named.

Ross Rennie remains the Great White Buffalo of Scottish opensides. He broke the “Killer B’s” axis before it had even had a chance to establish itself as a thing and in his pomp he was world class. However a series of injuries and personal issues have taken their toll. The word from Bristol is he’s been causing all kinds of havoc in the Championship but is currently out injured. He has been named as “unavailable through injury” which means he is still in contention rather than being overlooked like Barclay, but it’s difficult to know whether the Championship will prove enough of a challenge to produce the form needed for a World Cup.

As always Roddy Grant continues to be overlooked too.

So despite an apparent wealth of talent at his disposal Cotter has selected just one specialist openside in the squad. The Summer Tour was his chance to experiment with different line ups and game plans but we should be getting a clearer idea of what Vern Cotter’s Scotland looks like. It seems from the other selections he wants a ball-carrying 8, a pure tackler at 6 and presumably a snaffler at 7.

Scotland can no longer afford what usually happens – after several selection blunders and terrible performances the fans and the media get the player that clearly should have been picked from the start. Fusaro himself could tell you about this.

At the moment the back row feels unjustifiably lop sided but we’ll soon know how that fits into his tactics; whether he’s the new Jim Telfer, or just Matt Williams in disguise.

4. What does Scotland’s best front row look like and is it good enough?

Scotland’s scrum held up against Argentina and South Africa in the summer but with the possible exception of Ryan Grant, Scotland lack players that have cemented their place at the front of the pack. With the World Cup approaching Vern Cotter only has a handful of games left to find his best front three.

Euan Murray not playing on Sundays is no longer the issue it once was, only because Murray is no longer the player he once was. That is not to say he isn’t still a contender for a starting berth it’s just he’s not guaranteed a place. Geoff Cross remains a cult figure and is capable of causing difficulties for his opposite numbers at scrum time but despite a good Summer Tour his game time at London Irish has been limited. Trying to win a biscuit from a vending machine has probably been the highlight of his season so far.

Neither Cross nor Murray are spring chickens and it’s hard to see either being a viable option beyond the World Cup next year which is a worry given the lack of tight head props available. Hope lies with Zander Fargerson, another promising youngster “invited to train” with the squad. However Scotland are again just a few injuries short of a full blown crisis.

The options at loosehead are more plentiful. Gordy “The Shuffle” Reid and Ryan Grant are likely to fight it out for a starting berth for a few years to come with Jon Welsh pushing them all the way. Alasdair Dickinson still offers sufficient cover but it’s hard to see him fight his way into contention unless there are injuries elsewhere.

Scotland still lack a consistent hooker. Arguably Scott Lawson is the most consistent but he’s no spring chicken. Ross Ford’s inconsistencies are not as marked as they were last year and he has started to try to hook the ball after Scottish coaches realised that driving over the ball just wasn’t an option. Ford edges Lawson in the loose but his throwing at the line out remains a cause for concern.

Fraser Brown waits in the wings but there’s no place in the squad for Pat MacArthur who hasn’t done that much wrong in a Scotland shirt but has struggled to get past Ross Ford even at the height of the latters dip in form.

We’ll be announcing the “fans” choice front row soon. But will Vern Cotter agree?

5. Can Scotland win the Grand Slam and World Cup in the same year?

Let’s not forget that back in 2012 the SRU set the national side a target of winning a Grand Slam and World Cup by 2015. Mark Dodson stood by that target when interviewed in 2014. That’s a tall order for any team let alone Scotland. Facing the All Blacks will really test that target but it feels like Cotter’s arrival at Murrayfield might have come too late for Scotland to make any great leaps forward in time for next Autumn.

We’ll return to these questions after the last tests to see what, if anything, we’ve learned. In the meantime don’t forget you can sign up for our Movember team and enter our competitions to win tickets to the upcoming game against Argentina and next year’s 6 Nations match against Wales.

Don’t say we’re not good to you.

9 Responses

  1. I would like us in the first instance to pick players in their best/natural positions, none of this “lets try him out here” re. Wilson at 6 last season who was a decent 8. Lamont at 13 etc. Now we have Low at 6, 8 or second row. If he can’t command a place at London Irish he shouldn’t be in the squad. Especially as you say with good options at 6 (if Brown was picked), 8 (with Wilson, and Strauss becoming available), second row (with lots of talented options) and 7 (if Barclay or grant were picked).

    I do struggle to understand why Brown and Barclay seem to have been shunned, at one time I could understand it when both their forms were off, but I’ve seen both this season and they have been playing well.

    I’m hoping for the best none the less, I hope its better having too many decent players to pick from than too few.

  2. Am I really the only guy who rates Cowan. I think he is a really good player myself and is definately a proper 7. Look at his turnover numbers. I’m not saying Fusaro isn’t worth a go too but I think people just need to give him a chance.

    1. No. I think this is a really harsh assessment of Cowan’s performances in a Scotland shirt. I thought he emerged from the summer tour with credit and that he’s got the attributes to be an effective test 7. I think some people have written him off because he knocked the ball on a couple of times on his debut. My first choice would be Rennie if he was fit, but Cowan I would have Cowan second followed by Barclay.

  3. Let’s face it, the summer tour was an extended audition. Because of the ridiculous itinerary, injuries and a test against the Boks outside the window Cotter never got to mould and choose a test side he would actually put out under normal circumstances. Great that he got to see what some guys were made of but these tests are the first he has to send a team out and play his way. In an interview, Lamont (I think) said on tour they just continue their old training regimes and patterns because Cotter was familiarising himself with the squad and there was no time to introduce anything new.

    He has also had limited time with the squad, what they have had recently has mostly been hampered by injuries carried over from Europe. If you’re looking for a revolution you’re going to be disappointed this autumn. Hopefully by the time the 6N kicks off we have a team that looks and plays like Cotter wants. Realistically, we should probably expect the squad and approach to keep changing right up to the World Cup. Which shouldn’t be a huge issue, priestland only started for Wales one game before the last World Cup and was a revelation, really expanding their style of play (for a short time). Success is more or less going to come down to beating Samoa and progressing from our pool. Our squad is good enough but we need to fix the breakdown, fix the set piece and let our back do the Glasgow thing. If Cotter is half the coach his reputation suggests he has enough time to get us over the line at the World Cup. Success at the 6N might be more elusive…

  4. There is still a ‘sizest’ element running through the thinking of the team management, which runs through the article.
    Is Cowan the best open side? Maybe not, but he’s the biggest. Same with Cowan.
    Rennie, Barclay and Fusaro are unquestionably smaller. Are they better than Cowan? We’ll know after the AI’s, as I’m convinced that Cowan will play.
    Ford at hooker is another with a squad place based on on ‘sizest’ thinking, rather than ability. I’ve ‘banged the drum’ about the hooker position for years. Now instead of saying “let’s try other options”, the management appear to say, “he has so much experience we can’t leave him out”.
    He’s had what, 83 attempts to prove himself?
    Youngs of England isn’t a hooker of the ‘huge’ variety, but he can throw, hook and run. Enough said.
    I agree with Mike about playing people in their natural positions, although I might bend the rules slightly to accommodate Josh Strauss and John Beattie in the same team.
    The ‘sizes’ thinking doesn’t seem to apply to the no 10 (I think), even though some teams have been clearly attacking Weir in his defensive channel. Russell appears to be the ‘running’ option’ and offers the most potential.
    Happy to see how BVC deals with his selection issues.

  5. The SRU may have set their sights on the 2015 World cup but there is a difference between optimism and plain stupidity. I would say that it would be considered progress if we could get a good win against Tonga, a narrow win against Argentina and to keep the margin of loss against the All Blacks to arround 20 points. It would be great to think we could beat the All blacks, win the 6 nations and then the World Cup but that is definately not going to happen. We just dont have the players. Wew have a great coach but he is not a miracle worker. We would need to hire Harry Potter to win the next world cup.
    The SRU are great for massive sweeping statements but poor on delivery. The fact is that we dont have a good youth system and lack a sufficient number of club teams to nurture enough good quality players to challenge the best teams. If you dont believe me then ask yourself this question- how many of our players would even get into the squads of NZ, SA and OZ, never mind France, England, Wales or Ireland. The answer is not many, if indeed any. So Scotland for the 2015 Wodl cup- come off it. I have more chance of winning the national lottery. I would say a quarter final appearance is the best we can possible hope for but that would be an improvement on the last world cup. Come on SRU- get real.

  6. I’m not particularly optimistic about the upcoming internationals. I can’t help but feel Scott Johnson’s influence still looms large. The appointment of Gilchrist as captain being a prime example. A decent player, but maybe fourth, fifth choice second row in my opinion. So to make him captain, I just don’t get. Maybe there’s something in training we’re not seeing come game time? Ross ‘bomb proof’ Ford is another. I think Ford is great in the loose, but a hooker who can’t hook or throw isn’t much use. What has Pat McArthur done wrong? Especially since he is behind Fraser Brown in the pecking order. I don’t need to elaborate on the Barclay, Brown debacle either, pretty much covered here. I like Blair Cowan but he is not a better 7 than Barclay. I do tend to agree with Pragmatic Optimist regarding the ‘sizest’ element, it’s difficult to explain otherwise. As someone said on either this or another thread, we start the AI’s or 6N with one team, then end it with the one the fans/media have been screaming for. It’s hard not to feel that although it’s different coach, but same old selection issues.

    1. I broadly agree with your misgivings over selection in a few positions. However, I don’t think selection is actually all that important to whether we make progress before the RWC. Scotland has a shallow pool of talent so apart from a handful of players, almost everyone would agree on the make up of the squad. OK – we might want to see Barclay, Brown, McArthur in the squad or even in the starting team but none of them will make a decisive difference to whether Scotland is successful or not.

      What will make a difference is the quality of coaching. For the most part I think Robinson was a good coach who couldn’t quite overcome the paucity of quality we had in the backs. He ran out of ideas towards the end but we were competitive at the breakdown and set piece, we won lots of ball and often looked dangerous but we just had no cutting edge in attack. What he would have given for our backline now.

      However, we have now suffered from 2 years of drift and decay in coaching terms because SJ, who was supposed to be a stop gap was left as head coach until last summer. I hope Vern can arrest this decline, as his reputation suggests he can. But it will take time and I doubt we’ll see many greenshoots this autumn. What I’d like to see: some improvement in line out; some improvement at the scrum; aggressive and coherent approach to breakdown; more positive tactical approach. That’ll get us to beat Tonga and close win/loss to Argentina. NZ is going to be hideous but at least we should see which characters we have who are up for this kind of challenge.

      1. I completely agree with your comments regarding AR. I think he did a great job with Scotland’s forwards and I think that has become evident in the passing years since. AS you rightly state our backline was average at best during his tenure leading to the lack of cutting edge. A great coach but not necessarily the man for the top job.
        My gripes regarding selection is mainly because they are in such key positions, particularly openside and hooker. Ford has always had problems with his darts, yet has very rarely been dropped, and our lineout always seems to function better without him. Likewise it always seems to function better with Ritchie Gray in the side. Likewise Al Kellock, whom I would have in and around the squad at the very least, if only for his leadership qualities. Barclay is in the form of his life just now, yet is overlooked. I agree regarding the quality of coaching, and the disintegration of our forward play is particularly alarming, but I would argue that given our shallow player pool we have to pick the best players first, and then coach them to their maximum potential. Questions most definitely remain regarding Scotland’s current forward coaches.
        My hope is through time Vern will establish his best 23 and get the best out of them. Likewise I agree this will take time, but it will be quicker if our best players are on the field.

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