Scotland. Looking at their squad, you nod your head and take a breath in and think to yourself: “Y’know, there are some pretty serious players there.” I do, anyway. Then you remember the last couple of times you saw them play, and just how abject they can be.
Andy Robinson has announced his captain as Alaistair Kellock, which to my mind immediately rules out the likelihood of them starting their best lock pairing, Nathan Hines and Richie Gray. Kellock is a fine player in his own right, a good captain and seems like a lovely chap in the Rob Wainwright mould, but Gray is already looking like he could be Victor Matfield’s successor as the best No5 in world rugby, and Nathan Hines is long-established as one of the top front jumpers and tighthead locks in the northern hemisphere. Hines has great hands, a mean-streak a mile wide and ridiculous stamina – he played in more games than any other Leinster player last year [when you include his Scottish internationals] in one of the toughest positions on the pitch. Playing him at blindside, as Andy Robinson did during the Six Nations, gets him on the pitch but doesn’t take best advantage of his unique capabilities. Gray is going to have a great world cup – he’s both a phenomenal athlete and a proper rugby player, making tackles all over the park, dominant at lineout time and an excellent runner in the open field with an eye for the offload. The sky is the limit for this lad, and I’ve no doubt he’ll be piling up Man of the Match awards and contract offers from French clubs.
So they’re covered at second-row. You then look at their front row and it reads Euan Murray – Lion. Ross Ford – Lion. Moray Low – Biggest Noggin in the Magner’s League. Again, impressive. Until you remember that Ross Ford is a Lions hooker in the mould of Andy Titterell, Mark Regan and Barry Williams, i.e. one that makes you wonder how the hell he ever got all that quality touring gear, and that Euan Murray got absolutely plowed by Craig James in his last Six Nations start and when called ashore, didn’t look too bothered about it, smiling his way all the way to the sideline, and doubtless to church the next day. Controversial. Murray has been absolutely world class in his day – it’s difficult to forget the Man of the Match performance against the Springboks in November 2008 – but it’s impossible to know at this stage whether he’s capable of nearing those heights again. In fairness to Moray Low, his massive head is a constant that demands a certain level of respect. Big-headed props have been a staple of the game through professional and amateur eras, and it’s good to see that the torch has been borne into this world cup.
The Killer Bs have officially split, with John Beattie Jnr pursuing a solo career outside the Scottish squad. It’s difficult to tell who Robinson sees as his first choice No8 with Beattie out of the picture: John Barclay and Ross Rennie are confirmed opensides, Alasdair Strokosch and Kelly Brown most effective on the blindside and Richie Vernon is the only one left over, so I guess he’s it. Beattie has real class but has struggled badly with injury, and didn’t have a particularly good game in Scotland’s first warm-up match against Ireland; still, it’s a surprise to see him left out of the squad altogether.
Robinson has also omitted Edinburgh scrum-half Greig Laidlaw [of the Clan Laidlaw] in favour of Chris Cussiter, Mike Blair and Rory Lawson. All three scrum-halves have captained Scotland in their time, and, as ever, there’s no lack of quality in the Scottish No9 jersey: they’ve had a run of intelligent, hard-working scrum-halves that goes back all the way to Roy Laidlaw [and probably further] through Brian Redpath, Andy Nichol and Gary Armstrong.
The outhalf jersey has long held many more problems for them, however. Dan Parks, Ruairidh Jackson and Chris Paterson have all worn it over the last two or three seasons, and all are included in the squad. Parks is the man in possession, having played an hour of the recent win over Italy, but none of them really impress; Jackson has failed to live up to the early promise he showed in steering Glasgow to an upset of Toulouse in the Heineken Cup a couple of seasons ago, and looks indecisive and not particularly committed to the Sweaty cause. Paterson’s outhalf days are probably behind him, but there’s no doubting his commitment after that magnificent covering tackle on Ben Foden against England in the Six Nations. Pragmatic goal-kicking fullbacks with a century of caps one, floppy haired playboy fullbacks with pop-star girlfriends nil.
They’re not particularly well-served at centre either. Graeme Morrison is a big player for them in every sense of the world – he’s a big, tall basher at No12 who, if not noted for his subtlety, generally makes the gainline, and Scotland rely on him an awful lot to generate forward momentum. Sean Lamont was used in the role in Morrison’s absence during the latter stages of the 2011 Six Nations and brought far more pace to the role, as well as a similar size and physicality to the Glasgow man. Lamont has easily looked the most threatening of the Scottish backs in recent times: he’s big, quick, strong in the small spaces afforded centres and a natural runner in broken play. Joe Ansbro has a bit of pace at outside centre but struggles to impose himself on games and Nick de Luca … well, he’s no Scott Hastings. Max Evans is really the only threequarter besides Lamont who offers spark and unpredictability; he’s never quite fulfilled on his promise either, but Robinson should look to find a role for him, because that backline is too predictable and toothless without him.
Rory Lamont is back in the squad at fullback, but it’s difficult to predict how he’ll do. There’s a lot of talent there, but he has been injured so often over the last couple of years that there’s no real form to go on: before the recent warm-up against Italy, his last three games for Scotland were in November 2010, February 2010 and November 2009. He’s only played in one game of the last three Six Nations tournaments, that sole appearance coming on the wing against Wales in Cardiff in February 2010.
That’s it, then. Scotland will have trouble scoring tries, and have a tough group with England, Argentina and Georgia – not quite a group of death, but certainly a group full of big lumps who will bash the corners off each other. The Argentina of four years ago would have little enough trouble putting them away, but they’re not the same team, and that match in particular will be a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out affair. So will the English match. And, probably, the Georgian match. The most important person in the Scottish squad could well be Dr James Robson.
Full-backs: Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Rory Lamont (Toulon)
Wings: Sean Lamont (Scarlets), Simon Danielli (Ulster), Max Evans (Castres)
Centres: Joe Ansbro (London Irish), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Graeme Morrison (Glasgow Warriors)
Out-halves: Dan Parks (Cardiff Blues), Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors)
Scrum-halves: Mike Blair (Edinburgh), Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), Rory Lawson (Gloucester)
Props: Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), Alasdair Dickinson (Sale Sharks), Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh), Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors), Euan Murray (Newcastle Falcons)
Hooker: Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Lawson (Gloucester)
Second-rows: Richie Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Jim Hamilton (Gloucester), Nathan Hines (Clermont Auvergne), Alastair Kellock (captain, Glasgow Warriors)
Backrow: John Barclay (Glasgow Warriors), Kelly Brown (Saracens), Ross Rennie (Edinburgh), Alasdair Strokosch (Gloucester), Richie Vernon (Sale Sharks)