Image courtesy Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk
BUILDING continuity within the squad rather than developing players for the future was clearly the chief consideration for Vern Cotter and his coaching team when they got together to select the 27 man Scotland squad which will play two Test matches in Japan next month – at the Toyota Stadium in Toyota City on 18th June and the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo on 25th June.
With Scotland currently World Rugby’s ninth ranked team and Japan tenth, this tour could have a significant impact on seedings for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, although Cotter said that had no bearing on his decision to pick the strongest squad available to him.
“That hasn’t been spoken about. It is just that this group needs to spend more time together. We have a leadership group coming on and the more time we spend in a competitive situation the better it will be for us,” said Cotter.
“This is a challenge that will make us better for what’s coming next, which is the November Tests, and the Six Nations next year.”
“We are aware that rankings will come into account at some stage. That will be taken care of if we get our jobs right on the paddock so we are just focusing on that.”
The most notable omission is centre Mark Bennett, who has thrown his hat into the ring for selection to the Great Britain Sevens squad to compete in Rio this summer. While Cotter says he ‘respects’ the 23-year-old’s decision to focus on becoming an Olympian, his ambivalence on this issue will have been aided by the relative wealth of options he has in midfield at the moment.
Six months ago, after a rip-roaring World Cup, Bennett was in contention for World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of 2015 award, but he endured a miserable Six Nations. Meanwhile, Duncan Taylor was one of Scotland’s standout players during that tournament, while Alex Dunbar is widely regarded as a must-pick when injury free, and Peter Horne’s versatility and all-round footballing ability make him an excellent option for a tour such as this. Matt Scott has also missed out on selection.
“I have spoken to Mark. It is an opportunity that has been presented to him and he would like to consider it. We respect that and we will wait and see what happens,” said Cotter.
The coach also suggested that Bennett could still end up on the plane to Japan if the knee injury Dunbar picked up whilst playing for Glasgow Warriors against Connacht on Saturday afternoon ends up ruling him out.
“[We] don’t know 100 per cent yet, he’s being scanned tonight or tomorrow morning and we’ll have information on that as soon as possible. If he can’t come we have other players we’ll take: Matt Scott and Mark Bennett. We don’t know if Mark’s selected for the GB Sevens yet. We tried to get some information on that this morning. We’ll wait and see,” said Cotter.
Full-back Stuart Hogg was also in the frame for Olympics selection, and his decision to go to Japan instead is undoubtedly a huge bonus because he is in sensational form at the moment.
Meanwhile, Sean Lamont has not made the cut, which could spell the end to a long and distinguished international career which has seen him accumulate a magnificent total of 104 caps – although Cotter warned that it would be foolhardy to write-off the irrepressible old dog just yet.
The eleven Glasgow Warriors players in the squad are likely to feature in their Pro12 play-off challenge; while Taylor, Ruaridh Jackson and Moray Low will be hoping to play for Saracens, Wasps and Exeter Chiefs respectively in the English Premiership play-offs; and Richie Gray still has three games of the regular season left to play with Castres in the French Top 14 – meaning that there is a very good chance that Cotter will be forced to make changes before the tour party leave so as to accommodate injuries.
“I spoke to Sean last night. It is a conversation you don’t like having with players because he would like to be involved. He stayed available. Glasgow have a bit of rugby to play so he could be on the plane going there, as could other players. That is the initial 27 and things could change. He is fully professional so we know we can count on him getting on the plane with us,” he said.
“We will wait to the end of the season. I think there will be a few changes. Touch wood that there won’t be, but I’m sure there will be so we will have to make decisions,” he added.
Lamont’s position in the squad has effectively been taken over by 22-year-old Damian Hoyland. The Edinburgh wide man picked up his solitary cap so far as a second half substitute in last year’s World Cup warm-up match against Italy in Torino. He is the only member of the squad not to have played some sort of role in either the tournament proper or this year’s Six Nations. Cotter said that while the Edinburgh winger still has things to learn, his selection is based on the things he is doing at the moment rather than the potential he sees in the 22-year-old down the line.
“At the moment we still need more experience with the group we’ve got rather than pick players who will come through at some stage. Damien is coming with us because he has done some good things and [although] he has things to work on in his game, he brings the ability to step and break tackles. He gets tries and points,” explained the coach.
“We wanted continuity from the Six Nations. We weren’t happy with the last game we played against Ireland. We didn’t play well so this gives us an opportunity to assess that and get over to Japan,” Cotter added.
“We know it is going to be tough. Getting off the plane and only having five days to prepare is a challenge. We will have to adapt.”
“We are not contenders for anything. We know where we are. We have a lot of work to do to become a top team. We are a good team but we are not a top team yet and need to work through that. The Irish game is a classic example of it. We have some habits we need to iron out and develop better ones.”
“They know this is a great opportunity for them and they have prepared well with the players involved in Super Rugby, not just the Sunwolves [the new Japanese Super Rugby franchise] but also the Chiefs and the Highlanders. They have a good team and we are taking these two games very seriously. We want to move on and improve from the six nations and deficiencies in that last game. We have footage to look at from our last game in the Six Nations, the game against Japan in the World Cup, and are studying what the Sunwolves are doing.”
Cotter has chosen not to rest the likes of Edinburgh front-rowers WP Nel, Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson – who have battled through an arduous season.
“It was taken into consideration and it was a worry for us. The fact that Edinburgh have finished their season gives those players an opportunity to do some rehab and have a breather, do some recovery. They’ve got two weeks off before they come back into any form of training, and some of them may not start the Pro12 season next year. We’ll be looking at the amount of time they’ve spent on the paddock, consecutive games, number of minutes, number of contacts and a whole load of things will go into evaluation,” he reasoned.
“Glasgow will hopefully go right through [to the Pro 12 Grand Final] and they can get on the plane with a positive result, and that dynamic will then push them through to helping the team.”
Cotter has selected only two scrum-halves but said that a third number nine could be jetted out to Japan if either Greig Laidlaw or Henry Pyrgos pick up an injury.
SCOTLAND SQUAD FOR 2016 SUMMER TOUR (27):
Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 57 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
Willem Nel (Edinburgh Rugby) – 13 caps, 1 try, 5 points
Moray Low (Exeter Chiefs) – 32 caps
Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh Rugby) – 1 cap
Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) – 99 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – 7 caps
Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) – 15 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 23 caps, 1 try, 5 points
Richie Gray (Castres) – 56 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) – 22 caps
John Barclay (Scarlets) – 50 caps, 4 tries, 20 points
David Denton (Bath Rugby) – 34 caps
John Hardie (Edinburgh Rugby) – 10 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors) – 8 caps
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Greig Laidlaw CAPTAIN (Gloucester) – 51 caps, 4 tries, 64 conversions, 120 penalties, 508 points
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 17 caps, 4 tries, 20 points
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 19 caps, 2 tries, 3 conversions, 1 penalty, 19 points
Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps) – 28 caps, 4 conversions, 2 penalties, 2 drop-goals, 20 points
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 16 caps, 5 tries, 25 points
Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps, 2 tries, 1 conversion, 1 penalty, 15 points
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) – 17 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby) – 1 cap
Sean Maitland (London Irish) – 21 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 27 caps, 13 tries, 65 points
Tim Visser (Harleqiuns) – 26 caps, 11 tries, 55 points
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 43 caps, 11 tries, 64 points
2016 Summer Tour (live on BBC):
Saturday 18 June: Japan v Scotland, Toyota Stadium, Toyota City (kick-off 7.20pm local)
Saturday 25 June: Japan v Scotland, Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo (kick-off 7.20pm local)
Image: David Gibson – www.fotosportuk.photoshelter.com