This would be the team I announce tomorrow, and here’s why:
15 – Chris Paterson. This was trickier than I thought, which is a good thing. Hugo has been on fire recently, but before the recent rib injury, so was Mossy. Frank Hadden is looking for maturity of decision making from this team, having identified that as the difference between Scotland and South Africa in the Autumn. Scotland’s record cap holder displayed this in spades in the gritty Heineken Cup defeat to Leinster, out-foxing a charging Rob Kearney on a couple of occasions and showing a better ball retention than Paterson of old. Hugo on the other hand does still have a little rash streak. If Scotland are going to live up to their potential this has to be brought under control. Then of course, there’s the kicking. It’s almost a flip of a coin between Hugo’s educated left boot and Mossy’s goal kicking. Sadly we need the points more.
14 – Thom Evans. Time for Thom to step up and make people take notice. Blistering pace, a much improved defence and now the chance to show some of these other chaps (Shane Williams, Rob Kearney) he means business. Named by Stuart Barnes in his Lions XV at the weekend on the back of just 3 caps – although credited as a Welshman! He’s been in miraculous form for Glasgow and the ball seems to bounce his way almost every time. If Hadden is looking for luck, Evans should be the rabbit’s foot he needs.
13 – Ben Cairns. There’s a lot of talk about Max Evans at the moment, and both he and Cairns seem to have jumped De Luca as the bright young things of Scottish centre play. In a tournament where they could come up against the likes of O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Jauzion or Wales powerhouse Jamie Roberts, I think the extra grit in Cairns’ defence gives him the odds over the naivete Evans has been known to show (although he is improving quickly under Lineen). Given a free reign and a little outside space to work in, Cairns could be devastating.
12. – Graeme Morrison. Shown some fine form recently, and will add some bulk to a backline outside him that for once is more pace and raw talent than raw meat. Will need to keep breaking the line though as a Hadden-style 12 should or he’ll soon find himself back in the shark tank with the circling young bloods in the squad such as De Luca, Dewey and Houston. De Luca may be the ideal choice, but he’s never shown ideal form at international level. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t get a run at some point though.
11 – Sean Lamont. Scored a wonderful wingers try recently for the Saints and needs to recapture the form of a couple of years ago. A chance for him to escape the glare of brother Rory’s halo and prove why he’s worth his place in a Scotland team getting younger by the minute. Remember the Sean Lamont who scored 4 tries in one game for Northampton in between Six Nations victories over France and England? Go on Seanie, have a wee run…
10 – Phil Godman. Hopefully the Dan Parks thing has been put to bed. Yes he is reliable, sometimes. Yes he is frequently very good for Glasgow. But Scotland just play better with a mazy runner like World Class Phil bringing them on to the ball. With an attacking back division they need an attacking fly half. Godman has improved his positional and goal kicking too (as has Paterson) making the usual arguments for Parks’ inclusion less relevant. A couple of steady games (dare we hope for a victory?) and the shirt should be his for some time to come. At least until Glasgow’s young pretender Ruaridh Jackson gets picked for a Scotland squad. Oh, wait…
9 – Mike Blair. Probably the form scrum half in Europe over the winter despite a relatively poor showing from the pro-teams. Mike Philips and Danny Care are up there, but there is a coolness to Blair’s game that sets him apart – and keeps him on the pitch head up, rather than in the sin bin or at the bottom of a ruck. Being captain gives him the chance to set the pace and the others will follow if they can keep up. Good to see Chris Cusiter coming back to form and if there is an injury he’ll be chasing hard to get his old shirt back.
8 – Simon Taylor. Damn this one was tricky, as I’m a big fan of Hoggy and Kelly Brown has been playing pretty well for Glasgow (at 6). There’s Johnny Beattie too. There is a wee niggle in my mind that Taylor has been playing at lock all season. In the end Taylor has too much class to leave him out – witness his textbook tackle in the recent Stade vs Perpignan game and a couple of solid performances in the autumn. Hogg and Brown may once again suffer for their back-row versatility and it’s a coin toss for the bench spot.
7 – John Barclay. One of the easiest choices. Hadden fumbled about without a proper 7 for long enough, now he has several itching to get on the pitch. Consistently solid, aggressive yet organised, with good awareness – and sick of losing. His battles with Martin Williams at 7 in the first match and with David Wallace in March could well set the tone for Scotland’s Six Nations, and possibly the Lions tour too.
6 – Al Strokosch. You could pick any one of Jason White, the Big Stroker, Kelly Brown (again), Ally Hogg (again); even Scott Newlands has been in good form. Al Strokosch has been consistent if unexciting for Gloucester so far this season, but in terms of regular playing at 6 it’s between him and Brown. I’ve gone for Strokosch’s extra fire here but he is not yet quite the player he was last season when walked into the Italy dressing room and handed his man of the match award to Sergio Parisse after the Italy game. That shows a level of commitment and sportsmanship that can only be applauded.
5 – Jim Hamilton. In great form since his return to the fold at Edinburgh. Adds tremendous bulk to the front five and is starting to take on a little ball carrying now too. Given his proportions, this makes him hard to stop.
4 – Nathan Hines. News he did not train on Monday is a little concerning. The man from Wagga Wagga has been a fixture on the team sheet since his return from international exile. Continued knee problems could see a last minute replacement by Al Kellock who on recent form may manage to bring a similar amount of niggle as Big Nathan.
3 – Euan Murray. One of the first choices on many team sheets as a result of his sterling play since moving to Northampton to learn at the feet of the great Tom Smith. Recent news of a rib injury could open up a spot for Geoff Cross or Moray Low to make their mark but from Scotland’s point of view Murray has to be fit!
2 – Ross Ford. Offers a lot both in attack and defence. Dougie Hall is coming back to a bit of form after the switch to Glasgow while last season’s incumbent Fergus Thompson has dropped off a bit. Ford is the front runner by some distance, and offers good handling and running as an auxiliary back-row type. In the absence of the bulky back divisions we have seen in the past, forwards like Ford and Hines will need to step up for their share of the ball.
1 – Allan Jacobsen. He might not be praised at Murray’s level but still a capable pair of hands who shows up well in attack. In fact, in last year’s Six Nations he was about the only one who showed up in attack. We can but hope that this year’s brand of Scotland team will allow Chunk to concentrate a little more on the scrummaging. There are a number of younger props coming through though, so Chunk may do well to hold them off.
Bench: Geoff Cross, Dougie Hall, Ally Kellock, Ally Hogg, Chris Cusiter, Max Evans, Hugo Southwell
There are only 2,800 odd tickets left. Go on, you know you want one. A full Murrayfield would really help the team: I’d be there were it not for previous commitments. Damn those commitments.