Scotland suffered a last-minute blow to their hopes of starting a rousing send-off for outgoing head coach Vern Cotter with cornerstone prop WP Nel ruled out of the entire Autumn International campaign yesterday.
The decision of Nel’s absence with a neck injury came just as Cotter announced his squad for the tests against Australia, Argentina and Georgia, so late that the official squad sheet hadn’t been altered to omit the tighthead include Edinburgh prop Alan Dell, who is the only uncapped player in the 31 named.
The usually durable Nel’s absence is a significant blow to Cotter and Scotland. Since he came in the team in the wake of the 2015 Six Nations whitewash, Scotland have revived as a competitive force, having as decent World Cup and an improved Six Nations performance this year with two wins.
With Alasdair Dickinson propping the other side – the Dundonian loosehead is in the squad despite not playing so far this season with a hamstring problem – Scotland have been solid in the scrummage with a platform to enjoy their best ever spring in terms of tries scored.
Cotter, starting out his final eight games in charge of Scotland before he leaves in June – a decision he said he was “disappointed” about – sees it as an opportunity for others.
“He saw a specialist again yesterday, and I spoke to (team medical chief) James Robson this morning and it’s still unclear exactly what it is,” explained Cotter.
“He’s had this niggling neck injury, and at the moment it seems there’s no operation needed. Rest is the best thing for him, so he’s been given a minimum four-week rest period then he’ll be assessed from there.
“But isn’t it a great opportunity for Zander (Fagerson)? He’s been playing well – we think he’s improved – and he’s got some reasonable shoes to fill. But he’ll be well supported by everybody. It’s going to be a great test for us.”
Cotter has recalled most of those frontliners injured for the Japan tour – Grant Gilchrist, Alex Dunbar, Tim Visser and Finn Russell – and recalled Sean Maitland, Rob Harley and Hamish Watson. Huw Jones will join the squad from South Africa for training camp this week and there’s no place for Matt Scott or Ruiradh Jackson.
Peter Horne will cover Russell at stand-off with Stuart Hogg as emergency third backup.
Young Edinburgh back rower Magnus Bradbury will train with the squad and Cotter heaped praise on both him and Watson, and also their equally youthful clubmate Blair Kinghorn.
“Cornell du Preez played very well last year but he’s had this ankle injury that he’s still not fully recovered from,” said Cotter of the Edinburgh No 8 who has now completed residency requirements.
“We’re aware of what he can do and just waiting for him to be fully fit, but Magnus has come through.
“Three months ago I probably would have said he wouldn’t be involved but seeing the progress he has made has been great, and I’d say Hamish has made progress as well.
“I think his game is developing, having time spent with Hards (John Hardie) has helped him as well, and they are learning off each other.
“Blair we considered and looked at him. He played very well (against Harlequins) last week. We’d like him to back up a few more games like that before he becomes involved.”
Harley and Maitland’s recalls were due to strong form with Glasgow and Saracens, he added.
As for the future, Cotter is determined that Scotland continue to progress even if he won’t be overseeing it from next June on.
“Scottish rugby has existed for a long time and will still exist after we’re all gone, we’re just going to try and do our best for it while we’ve been given that opportunity,” he said.
“It’s been an honour and a privilege to be involved and I think it’s exciting times for Scottish rugby.
“The most important thing is we keep improving. Mental resilience is really important within this group; being able to front up physically is going to be hugely important once again, and front up consistently, not just one game.
“These three Tests are hugely important if we want to do well in the Six Nations – if we want to do better than we did last year.”