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.