A sticky situation in the centre

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…

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46 comments on “A sticky situation in the centre

  1. Matto on

    If Cotter had to go with two of Scott/Bennett/Jones I’d be pretty happy. For me, if fit, then Horne has to be somewhere in the 23. Unfortunately for Horny, probably on the bench for his versatility, and mainly because he is the best cover we have at 10 in my opinion. Similarly, I’d possibly have Maitland on the bench too, with Visser starting. A bench with Pyrgos, Horne and Maitland covering the backs would be stronger than anything I can remember in the professional era. Genuine quality.
    I think an we could have an honourable mention for Nick Crigg here, who was VG when he came on for Glasgow on Friday.

  2. john martin on

    A fit Dunbar is a certainty, (a fit on form Dunbar would be IMO very much in Lions contention). I’d go Huw Jones @ 13

    • Doddys Trews on

      I agree entirely. Dunbar + another as far as I’m concerned, with him playing 12 or 13 to accommodate the other.

      Great attacker, great defender, and is effectively a 4th back row with his skill at the breakdown

      • Mikelinds on

        Agree – IF fully fit and in form. This applies to all. Not sure if Jones will be available. Personally, all other things being equal I would go for Dunbar & Taylor. That said, depends on how the bench is viewed and then there are multiple choices. As an example – start Dunbar, Bennett, Maitland with Taylor on bench……could go on and on. First and foremost Fitness & Form.

        I used to despair at the midfield options we had, now arguably, we have as much in depth as the rest of the NH, if not more.

  3. JohnMc on

    If fit enough for a Test match, Alex Dunbar has to start imho. Have spoken to quite a few Southern Hemisphere pals who really rate Bennett as dangerous, fast and elusive, as do I. So that would be my first pick for centre pairing. I’d be very nervous about getting too experimental and adventurous with these or many other selections for the Wallabies Test. World ranking points are at stake here, and from what I’ve seen in this year’s Rugby Championship, neither Aus nor Arg looked too shabby even if the All Blacks are in a different league of their own right now.
    Having gone for my ideal centre pairing, how good is it for a Scotland fan to have to think about another two or three candidates of proper Test standard who could be the alternatives?

    I’m really looking forward to being at Murrayfield on 12 November.

  4. JC on

    Horne is not and never has been an outside centre, not sure he has ever played there. Considering him there is daft. And Scott is a fine player and seems to have some form – at 13. While he is well capable of playing 12 or 13, as we saw previously with him, if he is picked for Scotland it has to be where he is used to playing – especially defending – pick him in the other centre position and he is very vulnerable.
    Dunbar is a shoo in for 12 as with Horne not going to have any game time before the Autumn tests and Scott playing 13, so its a candidate for 13 we need. Scott, Bennet or Jones. Not too shabby a choice

    And whatever your opinion of De Luca, he wasn’t a basher even if certain coaches tries to use him as one

  5. Frazer on

    I feel a little sorry for Peter Horne who is a victim of his own versatility. He is undoubtedly in the mix for centre and is the back up stand-off, but it’s unfortunate that our best passer is not the best option in any position.

    My preferred centre pairing was Dunbar and Bennett, but both have been a bit short of form and fitness this last 12 months. I’ve not seen enough of Jones but he looks decent, Taylor had a great season last year, and Scott is in the middles of a purple patch. No matter who BVC picks it is certainly a much better pairing than Morrison and Henderson from days gone by.

  6. Highland Bear on

    An impressive list to chose from, with various options based on who is selected. Sean Lamont can finally hang up his international boots.
    To me Jones is the outsider, being unfamiliar and untested at international level (Hugh Blake anyone?). If only there was similar strength in other pivotal positions. Horne, due to his versatility and if fit, will be the bench 10/12/13 cover. When selecting, form and a combination that works should determine who plays. Lineen/S Hastings or J Leslie/Tait as centre combinations were greater than the sum of their parts.

  7. Jimmy Bond on

    What an utterly fantastic problem to have. For me Dunbar must start and a fit Duncan Taylor. Then we have Bennett / Jones as fantastic impact players. Bennett is an incredible player and could change a game coming on at 50/60. Hew Jones is the real deal, folk in SA are raving about him.
    Matt Scott is a tricky one. On a good day he is a very good player, but I always worry that he has that ‘self-destruct’ mentality of Scotland old engrained in his international appearances. I always associate him with De Luca, although think he is much more a complete player. Does anyone else get that vibe?

    Horne – invaluable cover player and I agree with Frazer – a victim of his own versatility.

    Is this season going to be the genuine/real/actual/non-false dawn of Scotland finally coming of age?!?! I will bet on it anyway.

  8. David B on

    Dunbar and Bennett for me every time.

    Dunbar for his fabulous ability over the ball and generally around the breakdown as well as his outstanding defence.

    Bennett for his classy skills, serious gas and ability to spot a gap.

    As others have said, it really is a lovely problem to have!

    • Not rocket science on

      Agree. Dunbar (Taylor in reserve); Bennett (Scott in reserve). With added benefit of being a club combo. Though that video of Jones makes you pause. Would like to see if that jinky running is fast / deceiving enough to have that effect at international level…

  9. john martin on

    Ive been keeping a close eye on Huw Jones he’s just won the Players Player of the Year & most promising back for Western Province & put in a string of tremendous performances. Bennett is a tremendous player but presently Jones offers a wee bit more. Taylor has hardly played this season & Horne is perfect for the bench (& also must be very close to starting if fit)

  10. Bulldog on

    No shortage of tried and tested options at centre however for me it could break down if we do not have similar standards of back up for Finn Russell at standoff. There are a few safe pairs of hands around , however no one with that game changing capability he brings. Or do we have suggestions ?

    • FF on

      Horne did the business against France and I think it was a mistake not to give him the chance to back it up against Ireland. Ultimately, Weir was poor and has probably slipped down the rankings.

      The issue with Horne is that his kicking probably doesn’t stand up to test standards. So no, there is no one with Russell’s all-round game.

      Kinghorn looks excellent…at fullback so far.

      • Mikelinds on

        Think a trick has been missed with Adam Hastings who I think is on a loan / dual reg deal from Bath to Hartpury. Some arm twisting should be done to move him to London Scottish – a level up from Hartpury. He would fit well, he has worked with Lineen and Dalziel plus plenty of his under 20 mates are there. LS are light at 10 if you discount Lydon. Think our planning was to play Lydon at 10, but the back 3 options have been OK but not great. So Hastings would be a good fit.

        Really need to bring on both Hastings and Kinghorn as alternatives. Sooner the better! The rest have had their chance, Horne being the exception and notwithstanding his kicking is to my mind the best alternative for now. His brain is a mile in front of the others.

      • FF on

        From what I’ve read, Adam Hastings has been pretty single-minded in doing things his own way, outside of the orbit of the SRU system, partly because of the baggage his name brings. He’s already had a few appearances for Bath – not sure if he’d settle for a season or two at LS, but you’re right, he does need game time at a higher level.

      • Matto on

        Yes it’s probably a bit easier for the opposition to predict how we’re going to play with Horne, but he is definitely a good (and our best) back up. When Finn has the ball you really don’t know what’s coming, which creates a lot of uncertainty in the defence and he has the full skill set to exploit that. Great to watch.

      • The Chiel on

        Shame that Ruaridh Jackson is now languishing as Quins 3rd choice 10. Evans is retiring at the end of the season which presumably was in his thoughts, but their Somerset Saffer seems to be ahead of him now, and they’ve gone out and signed Demetri Catrakilis from Montpellier for next season.

  11. Robbie on

    The depth is getting crazy – in another year or so, we’ll be able to add Kelly and Hutchinson too.

    With Taylor injured, for me it’s Dunbar 12, Jones 13 – Bennett needs to turn on the magic against Munster if he wants to force his way back in. If Horne’s back he’s on the bench, if not it’s Bennett – we’ll just have to run with Laidlaw as the reserve 10…

    What’s funny is, if they were all fit, you could pick three different partnerships for the three tests and not lose an awful lot. Dunbar/Jones for AUS, Horne/Bennett for ARG and Scott/Taylor for GEO.

    For me, the more interesting question right now is the back row. With Denton out, Strauss not having made an impression at international level and Cornell Du Preez having lost some of his fitness whilst out injured, the door is wide open. Between Bradbury, Ritchie, Smith, Miller, M Fagerson, & Wynne, we’ve got loads of Scottish born & bred talent coming through.

    Gutted we haven’t had a chance to see Scott Cummings, Matt Smith, or George Turner this season.

    • MK on

      Would love to see Bradbury at 8 for the autumn tests. Shame Denton is injured. A back row of Denton (6), Bradbury (8), and Watson/Hardie (7) would give us a nice blend of ball carrying athletisim that’s been missing from out game for a while, especially highlighted against Ireland in the six Nations.

      • Matto on

        I would also like to see Bradbury in the AIs. His performances are a notch above most of the other 6/8s (Watson and Hardie both playing well on the openside though). CdP is nowhere near his best at the moment, so I’m not sure that he should feature. Strauss seems to be finding some form again, so in terms of form I’d probably go Bradbury, Strauss, Hardie. Maybe give Watson a run against Georgia.

  12. Mac2 on

    Although he’s not everyone’s cup of tea with Denton out and Du Preez out of sorts, Wilson is bound to feature and his Glasgow form, despite yellow card frequencies, surely deserves it.

    • Mikelinds on

      Think back row is probably the hardest set of selections BVC will have to make. Blood some? None? We are a couple of years away from being in the same position as we have at centre, but there’s plenty talent there. Just the caveat, I don’t really see the really big, really nasty ball carrying guy coming through – yet.

      • Matto on

        If I’m reading you correctly, Mike, the only player that really fits that bill in the home nations is Billy Vunipola. There are not many such players around. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think Bradbury provides that O’Brien, Faleteau, Stander role. He’s a big, powerful lad and will fill out a bit yet. He’s happy to dip a shoulder, or attack the space, puts in plenty of big tackles, gets over the gainline, scores tries. He reminds me a bit of a Johnny Beattie when he first broke through (and was at his best).

      • Mikelinds on

        Yep, have to agree. Been very impressed with Bradbury, if as you expect he fills out a bit, then he shows all the signs of fitting the bill.

      • Doddie's trews on

        If “big nasty ball carrier” doesn’t describe Bradbury I don’t know what does. The guy has been destroying Pro12 defences all season (most tackles broken in league iirc), and has been a rare bright spark in an otherwise underachieving Edinburgh team.

  13. Matto on

    It is difficult to predict how BVC will approach this, especially given the importance of ranking. For me 6: Barclay and Bradbury; 8 Strauss and Wilson; 7 Hardie and Watson. The flexibility (Barclay & Wilson (6,7,8), Bradbury and Strauss (6,8)) will give BVC plenty of food for thought with starters and the bench.

    • Doddie's trews on

      I agree with those picks on the whole, but I also want CdP capped this Autumn. At the very least a bench spot for the Georgia game. In that same game I’d also like to see Watson start at 7. He’s not been given a fair crack of the whip at international level so far. Isn’t his only taste of Scotland gametime the last 5 minutes of that Italy debacle in 2015?

      • Mikelinds on

        Back to your comments on Bradbury, I hope to see him in action. Yes, he has been impressive in Pro 12, International is obviously a much bigger challenge. Let’s see. Agree also about CdP – think he offers a different dimension. At least one bench spot.

    • Andy on

      I think the two 7’s experiment has run it’s course and we need another lineout option and bulk at 6 and it’s time for Bradbury to come through now.

  14. FPC on

    I am inclined to agree that Peter Horne is Scotland’s best 10 behind Russell. In that case, he needs to be playing there more regularly at club level. Is Glasgow the right place for him?

  15. FF on

    I hope whatever selection choices Cotter makes for the AIs, he resists the urges to experiment against Georgia. In terms of rankings, Georgia is the only game we know we can’t afford to lose. They’ll come with a big, gnarly pack and if we take them lightly we could be embarrassed. I want experience and form on the pitch, not debutants or people we want to cap to capture.

      • Andy N on

        Totally agree Mike, with ranking being so critical to seedings at RWC, we absolutely need to treat all three games as seriously as we’d approach 6 Nations.

        Yet again, it mystifies me why we agree to play the perceived ‘lesser’ team at a football ground – where the tighter pitch means less apace out wide, and less ground to cover nullifying any advantage we might have in terms of stamina or speed. Plays right into Georgian hands if you ask me.

  16. Scot95 on

    Dunbar couldn’t shake off a chest infection before Leicester so there’s a good chance he will be injury free by the Autumn Tests. Scott will make the squad in place of Taylor, he’s been one of the really bright sparks of a mediocre start to Gloucester’s season (Greig has been on form too). Vern’s wildcard pick this time could be Nick Grigg who’s had a good few weeks recently

  17. Scot95 on

    I would be more worried about our fly half situation. Ruaridh Jackson has been playing in the Premiership A league, Tom Heathcote has been on the bench a lot lately, Blair Kinghorn hasn’t started at 10 yet and Horne/Weir are out injured. That leaves probably Hoggy or Laidlaw acting as cover for Russell unless Adam Hastings gets a go and he’s only featured on the bench for Bath.

    • Mikelinds on

      Correct, but injuries can’t be controlled nor can EPR coaches be told who to select. So, do we ask Embra to put Kinghorn at 10? Ask Bath to send Hastings on loan to someone other than Hartpury. No – thought not. In either event not experienced enough. We are where we are and BVC has to decide how he covers 10 during the Autumn Internationals.
      Worst case it’s Laidlaw. In terms of game management he’s streets in front of the others, done it before & better options at 9. Not desirable, but not a crisis.
      It does, however, make the need to develop Kinghorn and Hastings more compelling.

  18. Ross MacAlpine on

    Team for Georgia ? Thoughts?

    1.Alex Allan
    2.Fraser Brown
    3.WP Nel
    4.Jonny Gray
    5.Scott Cummins
    6.Magnus Bradbury
    7.Jamie Ritchie
    8.David Denton (Captain)
    9.Henry Pyrgos
    10.Finn Russell
    11.Tommy Seymour
    12.Alex Dunbar
    13.Matt Scott
    14.Sean Maitland
    15.Stuart Hogg

    • Highland Bear on

      Sorry but that pack would be minced by the Georgian eight. We have to play our starting forwards to gain decent possession to allow our backs the chance to win the game. While the width of the pitch nullifies some of our attacking strength, the fact that it is an artificial pitch will be in Scotland’s favour, allowing a fast tempo game-plan.

    • try hard on

      Too soon for Cummings and Ritchie I think. Also Denton’s short on game-time and form. I’d replace them with R Gray, Watson and Strauss.

      Gorgodze aside, personally feel the Georgian forwards are slightly overrated and a near full-strength side for us should at least have parity.

      Backline looks fine although Dunbar’s looked very ordinary since coming back from injury. Not many other options though

      • FF on

        If we let their pack slow the game down they will maul us to death. If we move them around their heavy front five will start to flag. They aren’t overrated so much as their strengths are really focused on the set piece.

    • Robbie on

      Cummings is out for the season, Denton isn’t back until at least the 6 nations, Ritchie’s been playing for Boroughmuir…

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