Assuming that everyone’s fit and available for selection, I want you to pick your Scotland XV starting from number 1. Do it in your head, write it down if you must, if you’re with friends, even better, you can have a discussion about it.
Well, even if you’re not done, I bet that picking numbers 1-5 was pretty easy. Some may make a case for the in-form Fraser Brown starting at hooker over Ross Ford, but I’d reckon about 90% of people will have picked the Edinburgh trio of Dickinson, Ford and Nel in the front-row, and nearly 100% opt for the Gray boys in the engine room. If you didn’t pick at least Jonny Gray, stop reading now, and have some stern words with yourself.
Then it gets a lot harder, as there is some real strength in depth to choose from 6-8.
Since Vern Cotter’s first match in charge, only some two and a half years ago, sixteen players have been used across the back-row. The first trio picked were Al Strokosch, Blair Cowan and Johnnie Beattie. Of those three, Strokosch has now retired from the international scene, Beattie has not been picked since March 2015 and Cowan since February 2016, and with no recall in sight I’m siding with Vern on this one and saying their time is up.
I’m also going to rule out young prospects Adam Ashe and Magnus Bradbury, bright futures ahead, but given the intensity of competition in front of them, they’re not quite at the level. Also missing the cut is Rob Harley. The 13/14 Warriors Player of The Season has been playing well of late for his club, but the other options are just a little stronger. Not to be ruled out for a spot on the bench as he provides bonus lock/flanker cover though.
The next omission is hard-carrying David Denton, even though his raw power provided a personal World Cup 2015 highlight. Ball in hand, big Dents went charging into Australia captain Stephen Moore. The hooker uttered “Oh f***!” as he was dumped on his derriere right beside referee He Who Shall Not Be Named whose microphone then shared it with us all. I don’t like to remember the rest of that match, but that moment stood out as a positive.
Now, I know I said to assume everyone’s fit and available for selection, but having not played a lot of rugby in 2016, I’m putting him on the bench at best, due to not knowing what level his game is currently at. Has he improved since he went to Bath? Time will tell, but for now, he’s not in the XV.
So the pool of main contenders, for me, is made up of John Barclay – who seems to be firmly back in Vern’s good books – John Hardie and Hamish Watson at Edinburgh, and finally Ryan Wilson and Josh Strauss from the Glasgow Warriors.
Some purists may be aghast at what I’m about to say, but does the number on your back really matter that much in the back-row anymore? Even now with 7, who was traditionally a bit shorter and used that low base to get into rucks and be the main cause of turnovers, doesn’t seem as relevant today. Strauss is the least “7”-y of the contenders, he’s all about carrying power, but of the remaining bunch, all of whom are comfortable at 7, I wouldn’t specifically say that breakdown work is their main asset. Hardie hits people hard, Watson’s a strong, mobile carrier, Barclay and Wilson are just all round abrasive, in your face workhorses, but hitting rucks and especially getting turnovers really is a team effort now. Do you know who’s made the most turnovers in 6 Nations History? Brian O’Driscoll. Played a lot more games than anyone else, that much is true, but none of them were at 7. Of the players with the most turnovers at Rugby World Cup 2015, you have to go down to joint 8th place before you find a starting openside flanker.
You’re just after the best three-man combination, who between them are willing to tackle themselves to a standstill, get stuck in at the breakdown, and have the power to carry for some hard yards. Not a lot to ask for really, is it?
Oh, handy at line-outs, and able to steer a maul too. On that basis, when fit I’m going for 6: Barclay, 7: Hardie, 8: Strauss. Barclay and Hardie started all the 6 Nations games last year, and I like how they work together, especially in defence. Strauss goes in to add the bull-dozer effect with ball in hand.
Right, that’s my back-row settled. I could go on: 9: Laidlaw, 10: Russell, 11: Seymour, 12…. this next bit could be tricky.
Things will become clearer when the Scotland squad is announced tomorrow, but for now who would you pick in the back row?