Outgoing Scotland head coach Vern Cotter admits the team face a “brutal” RBS Six Nations as he shuffles a squad missing key men and with others desperately short on games.
Cotter’s headaches for the forthcoming championship – Scotland start with All Black conquerors Ireland at BT Murrayfield on February 4 – look set to grow with WP Nel undergoing a scan on the neck injury the Scots were trying to manage to get the tight-head to the Six Nations without him having to undergo surgery.
The head coach is also missing the other cornerstone of Scotland’s hugely improved scrummage last year, Alasdair Dickinson. The Scots managed with the untried Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson during the successful Autumn campaign, and it seems likely the youngsters will be asked to front up again.
But Cotter also has a number of players who are included in the 37-man squad he named yesterday but are short on action because of recovery from injury. They include Huw Jones, the young centre who has not played since getting injured scoring against Argentina in November, their find of last year’s Six Nations, Duncan Taylor, and the dynamic back rower John Hardie.
David Denton has also barely played this season and may come into the reckoning, and the Scots are still hopeful about Dickinson playing some part, but in his final campaign before he moves on in June the head coach does not have his issues to seek.
“It’s been the story, Autumn Series has been reasonably comforting and then it hasn’t always translated to the Six Nations as well,” he said. “We know where we are in World Rugby, we know the teams we play (in the championship) are ranked better than us bar one.
“Every one of those teams has improved, Ireland have recently beaten the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa, England haven’t lost a game for a while, Wales are always there in the championship, Italy are changing their way of playing.
“Our aim is to win every game but we’re realistic. This is brutally tough.”
Simon Berghan – really just cover for Nel with certainly Fagerson and probably the recalled Jon Welsh ahead of him in the pecking order – and Cornell du Preez are the only uncapped players in the 37 named, with Cotter feeling he has a choice from players who are already internationally hardened.
“There are a number of players who have played a number of tests now and we spend less time putting things together at the start of these competitions,” he said. “We have a strong spine of the team and players who can take initiative and force the opposition to adapt.
“Certainly what we want to do in this Six Nations is really attack. If you are taking the initiative in dictating the game the opposition have to adapt and it means they are uncomfortable and our idea is to maintain that initiative for as long as possible.”
There are three notable recalls in Matt Scott, Duncan Weir and Welsh, Scott’s return coming on the back of some storming attacking performances for Gloucester – but it wasn’t attack that kept the former Edinburgh centre out.
“We had concerns about it his decision making in defence, either staying within system or as an individual,” said Cotter.
“He has worked on that and does not isolate himself so much. Those sorts of errors can cost us at this level very quickly.
“It says something of the man that he’s been able to take these things on and he’s got better at it. He’s been humble and hard-working and he’s shown the desire (to get back).”
Weir is back in as cover for Finn Russell with Peter Horne out injured but the coach was happy to see Gregor Townsend give Stuart Hogg a run for Glasgow at 10 recently.
“That was Gregor’s initiative,” said Cotter. “We had spoken with Hoggy beforehand, we looked at him there in the autumn and in bits and pieces and perhaps he had mentioned that to Gregor.
“It’s something he can do because his leadership has really grown as full-back and he links well with Finn and Greig (Laidlaw) and Jonny (Gray), also with Ross Ford or Fraser Brown. We have this spine down the middle of the team that is growing in confidence.”
Weir and Welsh were other examples of players who had done what had been asked of them when left out on previous occasions, while du Preez’s return to form in recent games had got him the edge over young clubmate Magnus Bradbury.
“Cornell’s a more seasoned campaigner, things tend to stop around him or go more quickly around him and we like that,” he said.
“Magnus is a great talent and he’ll come along later in the year. There are plenty of players coming through and showing things.”
Forwards: Alex Allan, Zander Fagerson, Gordon Reid (all Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan, Allan Dell, Willem Nel (all Edinburgh Rugby), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford, Stuart McInally (both Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby), John Barclay (Scarlets), Cornell Du Preez, John Hardie, Hamish Watson (all Edinburgh Rugby), Rob Harley, Josh Strauss, Ryan Wilson (all Glasgow Warriors)
Backs: Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester), Ali Price, Henry Pyrgos, Finn Russell (all Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Edinburgh Rugby), Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Stormers), Matt Scott (Gloucester), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Visser (Harlequins)