So now you’ve had a day to digest the news. Take it all in. Scotland coach Vern Cotter has certainly got people talking about his 31 man squad for the Rugby World Cup, and plenty of voices are none too happy with certain aspects of his squad.
Let’s start with the simple part. The backs, for once, didn’t throw up any noticeable shocks. Alex Dunbar, fine player though he is, was just unlucky to be beaten by the clock in his recovery from a serious knee injury. Had he been fit, he would surely have been an automatic selection for Cotter, alongside Glasgow Warriors team-mates Mark Bennett and Peter Horne, alongside Edinburgh’s Matt Scott.
However, for every cloud there is a silver lining. Dunbar’s misfortune opens the door for a man who takes the next step on his remarkable rugby journey. Richie Vernon travelled to the last World Cup in New Zealand as a back row looking for game time here and there. Fast forward four years, and, after a successful transition with Glasgow in the last season, Vernon will become the first Scotsman to represent his country in the World Cup as both a back and a forward, as he fills the final centre berth. Richly deserved after a great run of form, he’ll be looking to prove himself against the best.
Other than that, the backline picked itself. Finn Russell is now nailed on as Scotland’s first choice fly-half after a tremendous display in the warm-up match against Italy last weekend, with Glasgow team-mate Duncan Weir a very able deputy. Stuart Hogg was always going to go barring injury, whilst Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland have obviously done enough in training to convince the coaching staff that they will be ready for the tournament despite both carrying injuries. Tim Visser and Sean Lamont’s respective braces against the Italians did their chances no harm, whilst Cotter is blessed with three quality scrum halves in captain Greig Laidlaw, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Henry Pyrgos.
It’s in the forwards that call start to get a bit contentious. All five props remaining in Cotter’s training squad were rewarded with spots in the final squad, as were Ross Ford, Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally- interestingly, all of whom have switched from the back row at some point in their careers- as the hookers. However, Cotter threw a major curveball in naming Tim Swinson as one of his second rows. The former Newcastle Falcon was initially named in the extended squad, but was forced to withdraw through injury. However, a strong showing for Glasgow against Canada last Saturday obviously influenced Cotter to pick Swinson alongside the towering Gray brothers and Grant Gilchrist in the engine room. As a result, Jim Hamilton and Rob Harley, both outstanding players and former squad regulars, miss out, to some disappointment from fans.
And then we come to the back row. The real point of contention for Scotland fans. John Barclay, 58 caps to his name and off the back of a magnificent performance against Italy, is left out, to the chagrin of supporters and former players alike. What else does he have to do to make the squad? Only Cotter can tell us. It was a similar story for Blair Cowan. Named in the team of the Six Nations only a few months ago, and a squad regular under Cotter, the London Irish man was brutally jettisoned from the 31 man group altogether. It’s an amazing call from Cotter, and only time will tell if it is the right one.
In their places, then, David Denton is rewarded for a strong showing in the warm-up tests, as is Ryan Wilson. Alasdair Strokosch also came from left field having previously been out of the reckoning, but will undoubtedly do a sterling job in defence. However, the real talking point is the inclusion of Josh Strauss and John Hardie. Strauss, who doesn’t actually qualify for Scotland until September 19th, will bring the same dynamic ball-carrying he has displayed for three seasons for Glasgow to the national stage, of that there is no doubt. The inclusion of Hardie, though, grates with some sections of the Scotland support. Having only switched allegiance from New Zealand in June, Hardie was parachuted into the squad on the basis of his Scottish grandmother, winning his first cap in Turin two weeks ago. As a result, many fans feel somewhat miffed that Cotter has picked a New Zealander who has never played rugby in Scotland over the likes of Barclay.
It must be said that Hardie is blameless in all of this. He’s undoubtedly an outstanding talent, having played in the Highlanders’ Super Rugby winning side this season. Yet, until Scotland show their hand at the World Cup, this discussion will run and run and run.
Roll on September 18th.
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