Allan Jacobsen, Al Dickinson, Ryan Grant, Gordy Reid…Scotland have had some decent options on the loosehead side of the scrum over the last dozen or so years but there was a strong perception that we had entered this year’s Six Nations with the position as our most glaring weakness.
Rory Sutherland had other ideas, putting in a barnstorming display to assuage some of the fears against Ireland but one swallow doesn’t make a summer and he had a quieter though still solid game against England. So let’s take a look at the options Scotland have in the position and then discuss the position in depth.
The Incumbent- Rory Sutherland
Sutherland put down a huge marker against Ireland on his return to international rugby and backed this up with a solid display against England with one lung-busting run perhaps cancelling out a couple of soft penalties, one for the softest of early engagements at the scrum and one for a foot a few inches the wrong way at a lineout. The Edinburgh man can be destructive in the scrum, carries like a wrecking ball, works hard and is built like a tank. He’s got the sort of edge about him that Scotland packs have lacked at times as well and given what is frankly an incredible comeback from a horrendous injury he’s not short of resilience either. Scotland shirt reclaimed now for that Edinburgh one…
The Exile – Allan Dell
The much-maligned Dell has been a common fixture in the loosehead shirt in recent seasons. Initially, he was weak in the scrum but the South African born prop has become noticeably bulkier and is now much more solid in the set-piece without ever being destructive. Although the Scotland scrum was noticeably put into reverse a couple of times following his introduction against England, he does deserve credit for keeping it up in front of the posts though. A willing carrier who hits a lot of rucks and makes a lot of tackles in the loose so high work rate is a plus but lacks any sort of nasty and has struggled to break into the London Irish XV; game time is a concern. Bonus points for the tackle that absolutely melted Sexton last year though.
The Slaughterman – Jamie Bhatti
Dropped from the squad Bhatti will be looking to hoover up any spare minutes at Edinburgh when Schoeman needs a rest and whilst Sutherland is away. Bhatti is similar to Sutherland in that he has all the ingredients, strong in the tight and rampant in the loose as well as being a hard b**tard. Cockerill will hopefully be able to harness these ingredients to bring Bhatti on but in addition to a bit of bad luck with injuries, Bhatti has been woefully inconsistent and now faces a battle just to get on the bench at Edinburgh.
The Warrior – Alex Allan
I actually feel a bit sorry for Allan, I think he’s a really underrated player written off by many as a good club player at best. 100 odd appearances for Glasgow with about two thirds from the bench he won’t splinter many scrums and he won’t blast through many defences but I don’t think he will let you down either. He’s a solid player and a luxury to have at third choice behind Kebble and Seiuli where unfortunately he won’t get many minutes to put him in Toony’s thoughts.
The Project Players
Kebble qualifies to play for Scotland later this year and you can bet Townsend will be looking to cap him as soon as possible. The South African is an absolute man-mountain who took a short while to find his feet at Glasgow but has been impressive ever since. For such a big man Kebble has decent hands and he’s also a satisfyingly abrasive presence with a mean streak. Kebble also turned out at tighthead for Glasgow recently.
Talking of man mountains I struggle to believe Schoeman only weighs 118kg, he looks almost as wide as some front rows on his own. Already a fan favourite, frequently putting in 80-minute performances for the capital club Schoeman has been open about his desire to qualify for Scotland. Unfortunately with the qualifying period extended to 5 years it will be some time before he gets the opportunity and given his performances his commitment may be tested if bigger clubs with bigger wallets come calling (or indeed the Springboks). A seriously good player.
Big George was part of an immensely destructive Under-20 front row with Adam Nicol and I had it down as a real coup for the SRU when he was tempted North of the border. Yet to properly break out at Glasgow it will be interesting to see whether it’s him or Allan who gets the nod when Kebble or Seiuli aren’t available or are rested.
Another young player who developed in England, this time at Leicester Tigers, Grahamslaw is a converted flanker and yet another big unit. Currently at Watsonians in the Super Six he’s worth keeping an eye on.
If your a glass half empty sort of person then we’ve got a lightweight South African struggling to get on the bench at London Irish, a couple of lads fighting to be Schoeman’s backup and Alex Allan slipping further down the pecking order at Glasgow whilst Thornton struggles to break through. You might even consider it all just a waiting game whilst Kebble and then Schoeman serve their qualifying periods.
If you’re of the more optimistic outlook (and hopefully you might be when it comes to looseheads (if not much else after the first two games) then we’ve got a player still only just returning from injury but showing every sign of being back to his best as well as being cast in the homegrown Scottish loosehead mould that we love. Dell is all right and you’d then be looking at Bhatti being at the right club to develop with the conveyor belt about to churn out big newly qualified South Africans and a couple of young lads with big potential. If you’re really optimistic you might even be looking forward to Darryl Marfo locking down the loosehead shirt at the Ospreys…
Of course the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Sutherland played superbly against Ireland and solidly against England but it will be a big ask to maintain that level for the rest of the tournament. Those who watched his game develop pre-injury will know he’s more than capable, but he’s done incredibly well just to still be playing (and even walking) so let’s not pile too much pressure on yet. Dell’s lack of gametime at London Irish is a genuine concern and the English top division is an unforgiving environment to have to establish yourself. The rest of our options are either yet to qualify or stuck behind those project players in the pecking order.
Given that conclusion then let’s discuss some of the factors that may have hindered loosehead depth not being quite as healthy as most other areas of the squad.
Of all the players listed above only Sutherland and Bhatti were born in Scotland. It’s well publicised that as a rugby nation we are reliant on our expat communities and diaspora to bolster the playing squad but the loosehead position seems to really be struggling to produce from within.
Shaun Gunn and Murphy Walker (who may yet settle on the tighthead side of the scrum) are decent prospects in the academy and Ross Dunbar will be hoping to do enough at Stade Nicois in France to catch the attention of the pro clubs so the production line hasn’t completely ground to a halt but interestingly Alex Maxwell who started for the Under 20s against Ireland and played a part in pulverising the young Irish scrum is another English born prop who has been involved at Leicester Tigers. Thomas Lambert who started against England Under 20s has also been developed in Australia.
It may be worth remembering though that the likes of Big Gordon Reid, Jon Welsh, Jamie Bhatti and others at the coalface broke into pro rugby slightly later than most and the Super Six might help further in bridging the gap between club and pro rugby in Scotland. Both prop positions reward experience and the Super Six already looks to be supporting players to be physically bigger and fitter.
We only have two professional rugby clubs so it’s inevitable that only so many players are going to be exposed to top flight rugby. The biggest issue this season is maybe not a lack of talent rather just the lack of minutes our looseheads are getting at the top level.
Is it realistic to think that if we had a third pro team that Bhatti and Allan could be there competing for a starting position and the likes of Thornton would have a clearer pathway to the first team at the existing pro teams? Probably, but it won’t be happening anytime soon and there is another debate around whether another team helps you bring through more talent or given the first issue we looked at would we just be spreading what we have thinner.
This issue is then further exacerbated by the next one in my opinion…
The Project Players
Kebble and Schoeman. Two South African under 20 internationals, two dominant looseheads and undisputed top picks at their respective pro sides.
There is absolutely no doubt that Glasgow and Edinburgh have benefited from these signings, you’ll often hear tightheads described as the cornerstones of their packs and worth their weight in cold hard cash and yet you could easily term both club’s loosehead as the cornerstone of their pack. No mean feat considering the tighthead talent at both clubs as well.
These signings have clearly had a direct impact on Scotland’s loosehead options in the short term, Dell would probably have stayed at Edinburgh if he was first choice and have many more minutes under his belt this season as a result and Bhatti would probably still be at Glasgow competing with Allan to start.
In the long term though they are both clearly going to give Scotland vastly superior depth in the position and in addition to greatly improving front row strength at club level I’m sure the likes of Bhatti and Sutherland will be benefiting from the competition and Thornton and Grahamslaw will be looking to learn. Equally, we haven’t mentioned Seiuli yet but he’s had an impact on this as well. There is also a reasonable chance that once capped one or the other may move on freeing up game time for a younger player. There will also be more space available during international windows, but that may come too late for some of the older loosies who need games now.
Regardless of your view on project players and non-Scotland qualified signings it’s the first issue highlighted above that is the root cause of these signings and the ensuing logjam at both clubs. The Super Six then has a big responsibility when it comes to helping homegrown looseheads make the step up from age-grade rugby and additionally ensuring that they are battle-hardened before that point.
The three issues combined form a bit of a vicious circle in the short term for Scotland but between the project players, Sutherland and the younger prospects the position does now look healthier going forward than it did going into this year’s tournament.