There was much more movement in Vern Cotter’s Six Nations squad than might have been expected, but don’t expect that much in the XV that run out at BT Murrayfield just before 5 pm on February 6.
Cotter’s welcomed back a handful of those discarded before the Rugby World Cup, but that was when he had a much more restricted hand, and one suspects his thinking about his first fifteen choices has altered little.
The team that start against England may see only two changes from the team that started the RWC quarter-final against Australia.
If Ali Dickinson and Ross Ford are okay after recent nagging injuries, Cotter would be mad to change his established front row of that duo with their Edinburgh team-mate WP Nel. With Grant Gilchrist still out – and probably even if he recovers with a mid-February date to return from groin surgery – the Gray brothers are the best second rows.
In the back row John Hardie has done nothing whatsoever in the last three months with Edinburgh to suggest bringing him to Scotland was anything other than a good move. David Denton is still the choice No 8, leaving Cotter with a simple choice of what he wants on the blindside, Blair Cowan or maybe John Barclay.
The way Cotter was talking yesterday, Barclay’s ability to play all three back row positions while remaining a ball-pilfering threat at each one makes him the ideal bench insurance.
Greig Laidlaw is captain and scrum-half, all doubts about him silenced in the World Cup. Finn Russell has been off-colour since returning to regular duties with Glasgow but so much has been invested in him as the first choice 10 it’s surely unthinkable that they will change tack now, no matter how well Ruaridh Jackson has been playing for Wasps.
The back three of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland if the latter two are over minor injuries still look the best available.
The only changes will probably be the two centre spots, and they may have been changed even if there were not injury doubts about Peter Horne and Mark Bennett, who filled the slots on October 18.
Alex Dunbar is a Cotter favourite and would have played at the World Cup had he completed his recovery from his ACL injury. Alongside him, Duncan Taylor has been outstanding for a Saracens team still yet to be beaten this season as many as seven of them could be wearing England jerseys at Murrayfield.
Most importantly, the imposing physical presence and defensive expertise of the duo is probably needed for a Scotland team that averaged three tries conceded in matches against Top Tier nations during 2015. Taylor is reckoned by some to be all muscle from his Scotland appearances, but he’s been playing inside centre for the Aviva Premiership leaders and shown a real creative, off-loading side to his game.
Horne, if he comes back in the next fortnight, will revert to his role of versatile replacement, Bennett is maybe best saved to help break down Wales, the best defence in the championship, in Round Two.
Probable team: Hogg; Maitland, Dunbar, Taylor, Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw (capt); Dickinson, Ford, Nel; R Gray, J Gray; Cowan, Hardie, Denton.
Replacements: McInally, Reid, Low, Swinson, Barclay, Hidalgo-Clyne, Jackson, Horne.