If I were in Scott Johnson’s shoes I would be looking to start building my 2015 Rugby World Cup squad by selecting Stuart Hogg at fly half and Sean Maitland at full back in November’s Autumn tests. These two class players can be a catalyst for Scotland’s performances for the next two years and beyond but as Scott is only a temporary coach, it maybe that will have to wait a further 12months until Vern Cotter makes that decision. He takes up the coaching reigns once his contracts finishes at Clermont Auvergne next June but if these players are not selected in those positions who will fill these positions?
The easy answer to the full back position is that Hogg will fill that role and Maitland will move to the wing. Over in Glasgow, Scotland have two competent fly-halves but for me Rhuraidh Jackson and Duncan Weir both need a run of games and need to set themselves on a path that brings a greater consistence to their games. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the ‘10s’ was playing for Edinburgh and then we could see week in, week out how each would develop? Jackson plays a slightly more open game; sits deeper in the pocket and supports the ball well whilst Weir, being the chunkier of the two, is not afraid to go flatter and take contact.
Weir also has a heftier boot but perhaps whoever gets the nod for the pivotal position might have to play to a strict game plan to bring the best out of his outside backs. I have always said Scotland is still very much a work in progress but for me the most heartening performance over the last 12months was the match that they played against South Africa back in June. Following their first ever defeat against Samoa the week before, Scotland took a game-plan to South Africa that was full of passion but was laced with skill and intelligent attacking rugby. It was a game that Scotland ultimately let slip but Matt Scott showed that he has the ability to break any defence with his strong running and deceptive footwork.
In a similar mould, Alex Dunbar has shown that he too can carry strongly and his partnership with Matt Scott is certainly one I’d like to see develop against Japan and South Africa. If things are going well for the pair then I’d be happy to see them play against Australia in the final November test but a home test series will allow Scott Johnson to bring players in and out the squad. Tommy Seymour another player who shone against South Africa has had a couple of good run outs for Glasgow in the mid-field. Seymour has more experience on the wing and could still be included in any of the match day squads but talking of wingers, should Maitland play on one wing then either Sean Lamont or Tim Visser will secure the other flank.
Visser undoubtedly scores tries but he has yet to convince me that he feels entirely comfortable in an International jersey. Sean Lamont on the other hand is always looking for work. He is strong on his feet, carries well and pops up in that area around the fly half. He has played a number of his tests in the centre but his distribution skills, lets him down there. Keep him on the flank and give him the authority to attack wherever he likes. He must understand when he picks and chooses his moments rather than attacking when it is not on to do so.
I do believe that Lamont sometimes lacks judgement and concentration but when he is on his game and others can pick up on the support lines that he runs, this brings out the best within. And it is this understanding that players need to recognise that separates individual needs from team needs.
The old adage touted around the game by my fellow players that played up front was that forwards win you games. Undoubtedly that platform is important in the three set pieces; the scrum, lineout and restarts. From these platforms the game plan has to be delivered and Scotland has the building blocks for a decent eight. Ryan Grant and Ross Ford are the obvious starters at loose head and hooker but don’t we all want to see Ford carrying more often and making big hits in a similar mould as Bismarck du Plessis. Ford has the attributes and needs to be encouraged to enhance the game now that he is in his prime. It might be that Pat MacArthur will gain a start as he will want to make amends after his debut cap lasted only a few minutes against Samoa last June as will Steve Lawrie whose ‘ debut cap baptism’ was also cut short by injury
On the tight head we have a number of contenders, Euan Murray, Geoff Cross, Moray Low and even Jon Welsh who can play on both sides of the scrum. He may yet have a part to play but no one player has really anchored the Scottish scrum for many years and kept the position so it is an open call here on who gets the nod.
In the second row, the mop, that is Richie Grey needs to hit the heights (excuse the pun) that makes him a standout player. Alongside him, Jim Hamilton, Al Kellock and young Edinburgh lock Grant Ghilchrist are all going to be involved in fuelling the scrum and when you consider that Tim Swinson was also capped in the second row during the summer then there is plenty of competition there.
In the back row Kelly Brown’s standing in the game continues to be enhanced and the Saracens man will be back to lead his country across all three tests. Alasdair Strokosch’s huge physical presence is a must in the back three but it is also good to know that John Beattie and Ryan Wilson will fight it out for the No8 position. Rob Harley, Richie Vernon and Dave Denton are all options for Johnson to call upon.
Finally there is a piece of glue that needs to be used to stick these guys together and Greg Laidlaw edges Chris Cusiter and Henry Pyrgos. The clever Jed sniper is a footballer who commands a huge respect amongst his fellow team mates and whilst there is always an option for him to slip back into the fly half slot a settled run at scrum half is just the ticket for a player not only ever gives 100%.
I fully expect Scotland to beat Japan but it will be tighter than many expect. Their win against Wales in the summer will have given them much confidence but it is how Scotland will compete against South Africa and Australia that will determine whether this team has really progressed in 2013 since Andy Robinson’s departure.
On the back of a long hard season do these two teams have the energy to bother about Scotland. Of course they will, but if Scotland really do get below the skin of their opposition then maybe, just maybe, 3 wins from 3 can be achieved.