It’s funny being a part-time writer sometimes. You come up with what seems like a good idea for an article, scrawl out some notes, leave a half-finished draft in the system to finish when you’ve got a spare moment; but if you don’t hurry up and finish it, things change.
This one is a case in point.
It was going to be a piece about Scotland’s riches in the centre, about how for the first time in years we probably have 5 if not 6 test quality choices in the midfield for the upcoming International window, and the genuine selection dilemma Vern Cotter has to pick just two of them (plus cover). He could just draw two out of the hat and he’d probably get a half-decent pairing.
Fast forward to now, and the choices are looking less difficult to make, which is not good from a Scotland point of view.
Pete Horne is currently recovering from a fractured hand sustained in the PRO12 match against Cardiff at the start of the season that will keep him out for all of October and beyond. Duncan Taylor is short of game time for Saracens, but this is down to an ankle injury not form, and word is he has had an operation on it which will keep him out for a while. Closer to home, Alex Dunbar was a late withdrawal from Glasgow’s epic stomp all over Leicester on Friday night.
Surely the days of the doughty Sean Lamont having to cover centre are long gone but Vern still has to make a choice who to pick. If everyone was fit, these would be the choices:
Matt Scott (27) – like Greig Laidlaw and Tim Visser, Scott left the Edinburgh ranks once the free-flowing style that got them to the knockout stages of Europe had become not much more than a poignant memory. He’s shaved his head and pitched up to Laidlaw’s new home of Gloucester, where the familiar face seems to have helped him settle in. He had 3 tries in his first three appearances where he played the full 80 minutes, but as the full squad comes on stream he may find competition for places heats up.
That’s certainly the case for Duncan Taylor (27) who after a breakthrough year was seen as one of the big guns in an artillery-heavy Saracens team. The club’s player’s player of last season hasn’t started a game yet though and has only played 22 minutes in the Premiership. He’s competing with the likes of Brad Barritt (captaining the side) and Marcelo Bosch, which only makes it a tougher nut to crack. Ironically the recruitment of Sean Maitland on the wing may result in Taylor only being used as a centre whereas last year he saw plenty of action out wide. Game-time could be the issue especially now it turns out he has been battling an ankle injury. After Nel and Hogg he’s the next name on the Scotland team sheet, but he may have to sit the Autumn out if the ankle is serious.
Alex Dunbar (26). The big Glasgow centre is a favourite of many Scotland and Glasgow fans, but he’s one of those guys (like Ross Rennie before him perhaps) who seems like he hasn’t been given the luck to truly show what he might be capable of. A couple of decent efforts in the early days of the season should see him get a place in the squad if he can stay injury free.
Like Dunbar, Mark Bennett (23) wasn’t even in the last Scotland squad, but he is the proud holder of an Olympic silver medal as a result. His unorthodox summer has meant that he’s been eased back into the Warriors side. Originally on the bench, the injury to Dunbar allowed him the full 80 against Leicester including an intercept try but he’s still not quite back to the zinging form we know he’s capable of. It’s a good bet he’ll start against Munster next weekend, so that would be the time to put himself right back into contention.
Huw Jones (22) – assuming they can get a release from Western Province/Stormers, Jones is going well in the Currie Cup after a solid Super Rugby season. He’s under contract with Stormers until September 2017 but you can bet he’ll be high on the new Edinburgh coach‘s shopping list. The autumn would be the perfect time to get another look at him after his one brief appearance for Scotland.
Then there is Pete Horne (27), one of the best passers of the ball in the Scottish game. His drawback may in fact be his versatility as cover at 10 – he has long since put to bed the jitters of his debut there for Scotland – but he’s a valid option in the centre both as a second five-eights type distributor or a more lightweight attacking force out wide. Bennett is probably a better example of the latter, but Horne could be prime choice type available to Scottish selectors.
So, who to pick?
There is an argument for picking any two from Jones, Scott and Taylor to avoid weakening Glasgow during key moments of the season. Although even then they would have Richie Vernon (who now has international caps at centre) and Horne assuming they return from injury in time. It’s not yet a strategy that could apply to Edinburgh sadly, as they’re unlikely to be contributing to the Scotland midfield any time soon.
If you want a ballplaying 12/second 5/8ths style, then Horne is most likely the man for the job with Jones also worthy of consideration, although Horne may be used as cover at 10 for the near future at both Glasgow and Scotland. Then you would likely pick Taylor or Dunbar as a defensive cornerstone outside him. If you want ballast at 12 then Taylor, Dunbar or Scott would be sensible with Bennett or Jones outside.
The refreshing thing is that unlike in the Rob Dewey/Nick De Luca/Graeme Morrison days, these centres are not purely bashers or attackers; all six can defend well, all six have power and pace on the ball and good hands. And Bennett and Jones are some way off their peak age still.
But as I said at the start, things change. Injuries have taken over, and if he had to pick a team tomorrow, Cotter would have to go with Scott and Bennett or get on the blower to South Africa. As for cover, well, there’s always Sean Lamont…