Bad news for Scotland’s squad preparations for the “autumn” (it’s already winter here in the north) internationals came yesterday with announcements that scrum halves Chris Cusiter (thumb), Rory Lawson (ribs) and centre Graeme Morrison would all be unavailable. Luckily Mark McMillan is able to step into the breach – he’s been in form for Glasgow, and it’s good to have a Heineken Cup winner and former U21 captain to call on. It’s a big blow for Cusiter, who always seems like he gets injured just as he is hitting form. Nikki Walker will also join the squad, having been released by the Ospreys. Morrison’s absence leaves the midfield looking a little lightweight – especially considering they may have to face big lads like Nonu and De Villiers running at them – could it be Rob Deweytime again?
Scott Gray makes a surprise and (if he continues current form) welcome return to the Scotland National squad, while in form Max Evans and Geoff Cross make up the uncapped contingent. No real suprises otherwise but a few points:
- Good to see Hadden’s picked some genuine 7s.
- Not too many locks there though – Hamilton and Hines are the only genuine ones, so expect cover from Mutschin or Taylor (vindicated). Scott MacLeod may yet make it, test results/appeal pending (see previous post). No sign of Scott Murray who looked good in Montauban’s near miss against Munster.
- All the usual suspects in the backs, though it could be Lawson that misses out rather than Cusiter this time
- They seem to be heading for warm-weather training in Spain. With all the games being played in Novermber (including one practically in the North Sea) would they not be better training in Reykjavik?
- For me Barclay and Euan Murray are probably the only certs in the forwards, and Blair in the backs. Highly recommended picks would be Godman, Evans and Cairns also but I guess that comes down to Hadden’s tactics. There is plenty of scope for picking a form team rather than a favourites team.
- My starting (form) XV to face New Zealand would be: Lamont R, Evans T, Cairns, Morrison, Lamont S (maybe Mossy), Godman, Blair, Hogg, Barclay, Strokosch, Taylor, Hines, Murray, Ford, Dickinson. I imagine he’ll play Parks and Mossy in there somewhere though as Godman’s goal kicking may not be reliable enough – kicks could be our only source of points after all…
In other news of the un-surprising nature, most of Wales’ coaching staff were announced as the Lions backroom team plus team doctor and Scotsman James Robson. Gatland, Howley, Edwards and McGeechan certainly sounds bloody good on paper, even if it decimates Wales’ touring party in the summer. But then the Lions squad selection might have done that anyway. Shane Williams, James Hook, Ryan Jones and Martin Williams are all shoe-ins if you ask me. Also, Sky pundit Dick Best advocated Allan “Chunk” Jacobsen as a possible midweek Lion last weekend. The campaign starts now… and there’ll be more Lions preview stuff in the coming weeks.
Bit of breaking news: ahead of Frank Hadden’s announcement of his reduced squad to face New Zealand next month, lock Scott MacLeod has thrown his availability into severe doubt with the revelations that he has reportedly failed a second drug test, this time for “higher than permitted levels of testosterone”. MacLeod has insisted he is innocent and awaits the results of testing on his backup B sample. In the mean time he will be suspended from training or playing. Which makes it look even more likely that Hadden could be playing a back rower – or Scott Murray – in the second row come November. With White short of game time and Taylor playing regular first team rugby in that position, it looks like Taylor could be the answer. Unless of course Perpignan were just hiding big Nathan to keep him fresh for the Top 14 and he is fit and healthy…
Frank Hadden has announced that IRB Player of the Year Nominee Mike Blair will continue to captain Scotland for the Autumn Internationals, and that the SRU has also come to some sort of agreement with Premier Rugby over the release of Scotland players based at Guinness Premiership clubs.
While it’s not as much as Hadden wanted (a full two weeks) it’s more than they offered (5 days), and while any players picked for their clubs in the intervening period will have to return to play – in the case of the Gloucester and Northampton boys this may be likely even for an EDF cup tie – at least now Hadden and his new team of coaches can plan accordingly. For once Frank talked a bit of sense when he talked about the structure of the rugby season constantly throwing up club vs country clashes. If you look at the Southern Hemisphere they go from Super 14 to Tri Nations to Currie Cup/ANZ Cup then Autumn Tours etc rather than having them all run side by side or interwoven with each other like we do. And while I am sure the EDF cup is popular in Wales – giving them as it does another pop at their cousins across the border – the GP teams commit little to it unless they manage to coast to the semi finals. Couldn’t we just get rid of it and have a little breathing space in the season that would make these player release issues less contentious?
It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster over the past few weeks, with more ups and downs on the Scottish rugby scene than the Dow Jones. Firstly we saw Edinburgh put in a storming performance to dispatch Llanelli while Glasgow failed to beat Irish development side Connacht.
Then off the pitch there was a similar mix of good news/bad news with the announcement of Mike Blair’s place on the short list for IRB Player of the Year, followed soon after by Frank Hadden having his mammoth training squad shrunk a little by PRL’s refusal to release GP based players.
Blair finds himself in the exalted company of Shane Williams, Ryan Jones, Dan Carter and Sergio Parisse. Carter’s been very hit and miss in the Tri-Nations, and although he did save New Zealand’s blushes on a couple of occasions I would be surprised if he won. Williams had a near-perfect Six Nations and although Wales underperformed in their first test vs the Springboks, he’s the clear bookies favourite. My personal (biased) choice for recognition would be Blair, who has been Scotland’s best player for a few years now (sorry, Mossy fans). Despite Scotland’s relatively poor Six Nations, when given a chance to play his type of rugby in the second Argentina test, he showed what sort of a leader and inspirational player he could be (perhaps in a Lions shirt too?). So much so that one-time rival Chris Cusiter will (only for the moment, one hopes) have to be satisfied with holding down the Perpignan number 9 shirt, where he will soon hook up with a certain Mr D. Carter…
Then last weekend Edinburgh failed to beat the Dragons – who Glasgow defeated away from home on the opening day of the season – while Glasgow got their season moving again by beating the Scarlets in some style. The emergence of the Evans boys as genuine pace merchants is something that should hearten Scottish rugby fans. Glasgow also competed well against favourites Munster the following weekend, with a conversion the difference that cost them a losing bonus point.
Edinburgh have since followed that up with narrow defeat to Matt Williams’ Ulster team and are looking at a pretty sluggish start to the season. It seems they miss Ben Cairns and Malkovich more than we thought would be possible.
Later in the week we’ll take a look at the world’s premier club tournament, the Heineken Cup.
It’s a biggie, so expect it to be well culled before the final playing squad of 30-odd is announced. Still, they should be able to have lots of probables versus possibles games and injure each other sufficiently before November rolls around.
Backs: Mike Blair (Edinburgh), Ben Cairns (Edinburgh), Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Simon Danielli (Ulster), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Rob Dewey (Ulster), Max Evans (Glasgow), Thom Evans (Glasgow), Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Andrew Henderson (Glasgow), Stephen Jones (Newcastle), Rory Lamont (Sale), Sean Lamont (Northampton), Rory Lawson (Gloucester), Calum MacRae (Edinburgh), Mark McMillan (Glasgow), Graeme Morrison (Glasgow), Dan Parks (Glasgow), Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Gordon Ross (Saracens), Hugo Southwell (Edinburgh), Nikki Walker (Ospreys), Simon Webster (Edinburgh).
Forwards: John Barclay (Glasgow), Johnnie Beattie (Glasgow), Kelly Brown (Glasgow), Dave Callam (Edinburgh), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Dougie Hall (Glasgow), Craig Hamilton (Edinburgh), Jim Hamilton (Edinburgh), Nathan Hines (Perpignan), Allister Hogg (Edinburgh), Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh), Alastair Kellock (Glasgow), Gavin Kerr (Edinburgh), Scott Lawson (Gloucester), Moray Low (Glasgow), Scott MacLeod (Scarlets), Euan Murray (Northampton), Scott Murray (Montauban), Matt Mustchin (Edinburgh), Ross Rennie (Edinburgh), Alasdair Strokosch (Gloucester), Simon Taylor (Stade Francais), Fergus Thomson (Glasgow), Dan Turner (Glasgow), Jason White (Sale).
Pick two teams out of that? Or even one team? That task awaits Hadden and his new coaches.
In news announced yesterday, Scotland have appointed two new assistant coaches to fill positions temporarily held by Andy Robinson and Alan Tait over the summer tours.
Former All Black captain Mike Brewer of NZ has been appointed as forwards coach, and former GB Rugby League International Graeme Steadman as defence coach filling the roles left by previous incumbents George Graham and aformentioned Tait.
While Brewer played a controversial role in one of Scotland’s closer results against the All Blacks, he did sterling work with Leinster’s pack last season and should he work similar magic for our national side he may be forgiven. Steadman is a less well-known figure, having worked with both Munster and Ireland in the past since crossing codes. Steadman will also work with Edinburgh, hopefully to ease the transition between their 10-12-13 defensive axis from club to international level. The SRU site claims a replacement for Mark Bitcon is being looked for in the fitness department. So, with all this blarney-flavoured news, should it be pointed out that -as was the situation with Eddie O Sullivan – there seems to be a worrying lack of appointment of a backs coach?
We all know what happened to Eddie O Sullivan…
Argentina 14 – 26 Scotland
What a shocker, eh? Did you see that one coming? Having belatedly caught the game on pay per view through Mediazone – disgustingly the only broadcast provider willing to carry it, good on them though – I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. We could mutter about how Scotland had a chance to protect the 15 point plus lead that would have leap-frogged them over Ireland in the IRB rankings, but let’s face it considering some of the recent performances, a win’s a win. That the victory was achieved by playing pacy, running rugby, and by cutting out (most of) the errors on top of the usual solid defence made it all the sweeter.
Funny how you play World Class Phil at 10 and suddenly the emphasis is not on kicking or up-and-unders – probably a good job, as despite a pretty solid performance he did fluff a few touch kicks. Or maybe they were meant to miss touch and force the counter, you know, like Dan Carter does. He attacked the line constantly, passed flat and in front of his runners, and made one sterling break that could have quite easily made a try for Mossy in the corner but for a better timed pass. Speaking of good passes, yes Parks got on, and yes he set up a try with a sweet pass to Morrison off an interception, but by that point it was “shut up shop” time and he was patently brought on to pin the Argies in their own half with his boot. Cairns also made some great breaks, and for the first time in a Scotland shirt looked the real attacking threat we know he could be. Poor De Luca received a total of no passes that I could see. His time will come.
The forwards put in an awesome display (Barclay and Stroker acting like nightclub bouncers around the ball and generally looking up for the challenge), but despite what the rankings say this wasn’t the Argentina that finished 3rd in the World Cup. They were missing the verve of Hernandez and Corletto, and the likes of Longo and Albacete up front. Even with the backing of a passionate crowd they reverted to type-1 rugby. I also thought they didn’t dive into the ruck nearly as effectively as they did in the World Cup, and their turnover rate on our ball was much lower. Or maybe that’s just because Alain Rolland kept an eye on them after the battering they gave Mikey Blair last week.
Next weekend after the Churchill Cup Final – Scotland A vs England Saxons – Al and I will chip in with our end of season thoughts.
So, 15 points. Can we really beat Argentina by that much? Without scoring any tries? With Dan Parks at 10? Not having seen the previous game yet, I can’t really comment specifically but from the sounds of it on the radio we were solid in the set piece but bullied at the breakdown, which led to slow ball, which led to, well, the usual. It’s good to see Stroker in the press with some fire in his belly about losing games we should win, and hopefully Robinson will key the back row (and Alain Rolland) in a bit to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Much like many of you out there, it seems pretty evident to me that regardless of club form or favouritism, the team don’t fire with Parko at 10 (unless we are playing England and it is raining), so it is of little use constantly shuffling the backline when the ball never gets beyond 10 or 12. Therefore I will refrain from discussing the backs. What’s the point?
Don’t forget you can catch the Scotland A game vs Argentina A in the Churchill Cup from 9.30 tonight to see if the understudies can manage what the full team have singularly failed to do, namely beat the Argies. It was a good showing from the A team to beat a stubborn and fired-up Canada on Saturday, but the lack of familiar faces in the team compared to say the England Saxons team does highlight the lack of depth we have in Scotland once you skim off the Glasgow and Edinburgh first 22s and the current crop of big name exiles. A lot of these guys have not been playing first team professional rugby this season, and although you could argue this tour will give them valuable experience, it does show that to get the results we would all love to see, Scotland needs to find a way to sustain more than just a core of about 30-40 players – once these ranks are depleted through injury or the niceties of the French club season, we are severely short of form and experience. Even the A Team coaches have been spirited away to the main team in an effort to bolster confidence, depriving our up and coming players of what would have been a valuable learning process.
Anyway, all the best. Good luck to both teams and I hope I will be proven wrong. Al and I are off to Cardiff to pay homage at the Millennium Stadium, so we may be unavailable for comment after Saturday’s match. Feel free to leave your build-up and feedback on any of the games in the comments below – don’t forget new look Oz and England are both in action this weekend too, against the Irish and All Blacks respectively.
UPDATE: here’s the team, comments below:
Southwell, Paterson, Cairns, Morrison, Webster, Godman, Blair, Jacobsen, Ford, Murray, Mustchin, MacLeod, Strokosch, Barclay, Hogg.
Replacements: Hall, Dickinson, Kellock, Brown, Lawson, Parks, De Luca.
Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross has been called up to the Scotland squad to tour Argentina after Craig Smith pulled out of the squad. Smith is also reported to be “considering his future in rugby” after a less than successful season. I suppose after meeting Al and I in St Etienne it was all downhill from there, but I hope he considers sticking around – he has strong potential to become the new Chunk, and his love of beards will only boost his chances of becoming a cult figure. Meanwhile Argentina have named a squad that includes a clutch of Premiership and Magners League players – but perhaps luckily for Scotland several of the big names playing in France (ie Hernandez) are absent.
Marcus Di Rollo has been withdrawn from the A Squad by Toulose, despite the fact they refuse to play him on health grounds, which is a bit mean spirited. And Scott Barrow can no longer play for Scotland through residency as he, um, sold his house.
Alan Tait has announced he is to follow former Borders colleague Steve Bates to become Newcastle Assistant Coach. Should be a good signing for the Falcons, and it will be interesting to see if he extends his remit beyond simply defence coaching – let’s not forget he knows a thing or two about attacking play too, having played cross-code at the highest levels.
And finally, eligible Scotland front-rower Nick Lloyd of Saracens has been selected for England’s experimental XV to face the BaBas on Sunday, putting that issue to bed once and for all. Add him to the list with Ryan Lamb of “what-might-have-been”s. Hadden does have a policy of not chasing players eligible to play for Scotland, but with such a small player pool anyway is he letting too many slip through the nets?
Simon Webster are the latest additions to the tour party for Argentina, with the fleet-footed winger being declared fit after a hamstring injury and Edinburgh lock (but New Zealand born) Matt Mustchin added to boost the second row numbers. Mustchin’s inclusion will no doubt raise eyebrows in some quarters – he only just qualifies on residency – but if the Kiwis prefer South Sea Islanders, then why not give us the spare Kiwis, many of whom will be sporting Scottish ancestors more likely than not… Sure, it’s not strictly cricket, but then neither is putting the ball into the scrum squint – and that happens, too.
In other news, George Graham has confirmed he will not be staying with the SRU after being largely scapegoated for the poor Six Nations showing – Alan Tait has since been re-positioned and re-hired for Argentina – and is eyeing up positions with Munster and Newcastle among others. Steve Bates, the former Borders head coach, has been installed “permanently” as Director of Rugby and is looking for a forwards coach (and a defence coach too if Tait should grow weary of his role north of the border), so Graham may indeed opt for the rough and tumble of the Premiership. He has expressed a desire to be Scotland coach one day, so best of luck George.
Today Wasps Director of Rugby Ian McGeechan is expected to be named as the head coach for the next British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2009. The former Scotland coach has become synonymous with Lions tours both as coach and player, and anyone who has seen his midweek team talks on the 2005 tour DVD – way more impressive than Woodward’s – should be assured he is the man for the job of restoring a bit of pride to Lions rugby.
Sorry, couldn’t resist it.
He also has a successful tour of South Africa under his belt which can’t hurt. Shaun Edwards – having already expressed a desire to go on this tour as his reason for taking the Wales job – is a near cert as defence coach, and Warren Gatland also likely to take a job as forwards coach in the “dream team”. All of which might leave Wasps slightly understrength come next season’s late spurt for the title, but that would be no bad thing, would it?
In other news, poor Moray Low is going to miss the Scotland tour of Argentina and his chance of a first cap due to an ankle injury sustained in the last game of the season, and Max Evans has been promoted to the main squad to join his brother, while we await word on Simon “Malkovich” Webster’s inclusion pending recovery from an injury. In the absence of the Lamont brothers, let’s hope the Evans boys can follow in the footsteps of them and the Hastings brothers and form another dynamic family duo in Scotland’s back line.