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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Zander Fagerson’s potential absence is a massive blow to Scotland’s Six Nations hopes

Zander Fagerson's health is of crucial importance to Scotland.
Zander Fagerson's health is of crucial importance to Scotland.

I remember speaking to Vern Cotter about tight head props as he picked his Scotland squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

“How many do you think you’ll need?” I asked. “How many have you got?” he replied.

Nearly seven years on, there was a collective groan that went across Scottish rugby just the other week.

Well, those watching Zebre’s match with Glasgow in Parma, at least. Early in the first half, Scotland and Lions tight-head prop Zander Fagerson went to ground, and didn’t immediately get up.

He was escorted with a limp to the sideline. Immediately the sirens were sounding.

Zander’s crucial importance to Scotland

Sure enough, the Dundee-born prop has a hamstring injury that will shortly be examined by a specialist.

It certainly will have him struggling to play in the opening game of the Six Nations against England at Twickenham. That’s just six short weeks away, folks.

Zander’s crucial importance to Scotland’s fortunes has sort of crept up on us. He’s still only 26, and has 54 caps, the first handed out by (no surprise) Cotter when Fagerson was just past his 20th birthday, in 2016.

He was first choice at 21, for the 2017 Six Nations. Since then, but for a couple of minor injuries, Zander’s been very durable for maybe the most gruelling position on the field. He’s not missed any action at all since the last World Cup.

This is doubly admirable as Zander is far from the scrum-only tight-head of lore. He’s an exceptional defender, a powerful ball carrier, quick and agile for player upwards of 125 kg.

He’s also combative (‘Zandbags’ is a social media favourite for his regular scrapes) and more than holds his own in the scrummage.

Not much in the way of options

The problem now is that Zander’s reliability has left the replacement cupboard bare. Veteran WP Nel (also first capped by Cotter) is primary back-up, but is 36 and while a scrummaging guru, is not nearly the rounded player that Fagerson is.

Murphy Walker definitely has the makings of a mini-Zander, but the Longforgan lad has played barely 10 pro games, two of them for Scotland in the Autumn Tests.

That’s an issue in itself. You could ask why Fagerson was even playing for Glasgow against Zebre. It looked an ideal opportunity to give Walker some miles on the clock (he did very well as Zander’s replacement in an ultimately easy win).

Wouldn’t it have been far better that Fagerson was given time off for more wholesome Instagram pictures with his appealing young family? But obviously, rugby players can get injured in any game.

At least Walker can get some game time now, right? Glasgow instead had Simon Berghan, who seems to have fallen off Gregor Townsend’s radar, starting against Bath last week, and replaced him with Argentinian Lucio Sordoni.

Things are no better at Edinburgh, where the tight heads are Nel, unqualified South African Luan de Bruin, Fiji’s Lee-Roy Aralifo and Angus Williams, a Scottish-qualified Kiwi who has played 16 games over two years.

A depth weakness

Elsewhere? There’s Javan Sebastian of Scarlets, who was capped three times last season but didn’t get into the squad for the Autumn tests.

Former Dunfermline colt Murray McCallum might have been a call, but he hasn’t yet found a club since Worcester went under.

Gregor Townsend has trumpeted strength-in-depth as he’s capped a multitude of players over the last few years. But it still looks pretty fragile in places, no more so than one of the most pivotal positions on the team sheet.

Gregor likes to conjure up ‘ringers’ for every Scotland squad, player you don’t expect to see but he’s uncovered in unlikely circumstances.

It seems he’s going to need an extra-special one this time.

What time is it?

I don’t generally like to make comparisons between the football codes. Although they all come from the same evolutionary root, in the 21st century they’re about as far apart as species of ape.

And none of them are yet as relatively advanced as homo sapien.

Watching bits of the FIFA World Cup this past month I’m struck by how little the Association code’s rules have changed. And it’s amusing to see and hear people get irate when 21st century technology is applied to rules formulated in the 1880s, like that wouldn’t ever be a problem.

Most other sports have evolved their rules down the years, and more so since introducing their own versions of VAR. Some, like cricket, have changed irrevocably as a result, with many more lbw decisions since ball tracking was introduced.

Rugby has an almost annual rules (laws, if you are that pompous) review, usually concerning the breakdown. It’s still not right, and probably never will be,  but we soldier on.

The NFL actually has a committee of coaches and senior players that meets to discuss rules changes EVERY YEAR.

One rule change that needs to happen

But suggest changing soccer football’s rules? Expect a crowd of ‘traditionalists’ with torches and pitchforks at your door. It’s almost a badge of honour in the sport.

Fair enough. But I’m puzzled to why football hasn’t yet to come to terms with modern timing advances.

‘Injury’ or ‘added’ time seems to be a classified secret, hoarded by officials. Then it’s finally unveiled to gasps of shock from the crowd and observers late in the game.

Is this extra drama really necessary? Maybe at the end of a 0-0 game.

In the other footballs, the refs still have control of the clock. They stop it for injuries, for replacements/subs, for instant replay checks and for egregious timewasting.

Only in the NFL does it stop when the ball goes out of play. That game is restricted to an hour of game-time (it still takes four hours to actually play it).

But everyone can see the clock all the time, and everyone knows how much time is left.

There is no good reason why soccer football doesn’t do this as well. It’s the 21st century, guys.