IT would be pushing it to say that Vern Cotter came across as demob happy yesterday morning, when he met the press to announce the Scotland training squad for next month’s Autumn international test series against Australia, Argentina and Georgia – but his demeanour was definitely lighter than we have been used to during the two years he has been head coach of the national team.
There was even a bit of comedy from the famously taciturn New Zealander when he mused that the neck injury which has ruled WP Nel out of the series came as a surprise “because we didn’t think he had a neck.”
Cotter is being replaced next summer by Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend and, although he refused to comment on the political machinations behind this management reshuffle, he did concede that he is “disappointed” at not having the opportunity to finish the job he has started with Scotland.
The fact that he is walking straight into a new role at Montpellier – where he is expected to become the world’s highest paid coach on a three year deal worth £2.5 million – has perhaps taken the edge off any sense of grievance he might have felt at the way things have panned out.
All that remains is for Cotter to finish his truncated Scotland tenure on a high. He is now off the four year merry-go-round which requires coaches to perform a delicate balancing act between the short-term imperative of winning as many matches as possible, and the longer term requirement to blood new faces and experiment with tactics and combinations so as to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the quest to be as strong as is possible at the next World Cup.
The 54-year-old can focus, solely, on the here and now. His only goal is to win as many of the eight games he has left as possible.
Circumstances, however, have conspired against him in this international window, with injuries to props exposing a chronic lack of depth in this crucial position – meaning that he will have little choice but to give some previously peripheral players a run in the team.
WP Nel is not available due to a mysterious neck problem which has been bothering him for the best part of a month. The South African born tighthead, who has been the lynchpin of the Scottish pack since making his Test debut in a World Cup warm-up game against Italy last August, managed 67 minutes for Edinburgh against Harlequins on Saturday, but was then ruled unavailable for selection for the upcoming series after seeing a specialist on Monday.
“I spoke to James [Robson – the SRU’s head of medical services] this morning and it’s still unclear exactly what it is. He’s had this niggling neck injury, so we’re just having a look. At the moment it seems there’s no operation needed. Rest is the best thing for him, so he’s been given a minimum four-week rest period then he’ll be assessed from there. If there’s anything else that comes out, it will be given as soon as we know it. I tried to find out more this morning. It was only yesterday . . . . When we were naming the squad, he was going to be involved,” said Cotter.
That leaves it a toss-up between Zander Fagerson and Moray Low to fill the number three jersey.
With 34 caps, Low is the experienced choice, but the 31-year-old has played almost all his club rugby for second string Exeter Braves this season, with his only appearance for the frontline Chiefs being at loosehead in last weekend’s 38-5 home defeat to Clermont Auvergne.
Fagerson appears to be the more likely option. He has been capped only once, as a replacement against England during the last Six Nations, and missed out on the summer tour to Japan so that he could play for the Scotland under-20s team at the Junior World Cup – but gave an indication of what he is capable of with an impressive display for Glasgow Warriors against Leicester Tigers in the opening round of the this year’s Champions Cup.
He was part of the Warriors collective blown away by pumped-up Munster at an emotional Thomond Park on Saturday afternoon, but Cotter says he is not too worried about that setback.
“Every so often there is a game in a season when you get a wake up and I think that was one. It’s just a timely reminder that the fundamentals of the game are important. The game starts up front and you’ve got to be ready physically. I’m sure they’ve taken that on board and, yeah, it’s a timely reminder before we take on international games,” he said.
“Isn’t it a great opportunity for Zander? He’s been playing well – we think he’s improved – and if he’s starting or on the bench for the games against Australia, Argentina or Georgia he’s got some reasonable shoes to fill. But he’ll be well supported by everybody. It’s a team game, the scrum is important, but everybody will be helping him. It’s a great test for us,” he added.
The situation could be even more problematic on the opposite side of the scrum, with Rory Sutherland being ruled out of the series after hurting his groin during the warm-up to Edinburgh’s match at the weekend, while Alasdair Dickinson and Gordon Reid are both in the squad but have major injury concerns hanging over their heads.
Dickinson has not played since damaging his hamstring during Scotland’s first Test match against Japan at the start of June.
“He’s been followed closely by the medical staff, both at Edinburgh and with the national team, so he’s progressing well. He had a slight setback with a calf injury. We’re hoping that he will get game time, if not in the first game but perhaps the second game. It is going to be a fine line,” said Cotter.
“We also have concerns with Gordon Reid. He’s getting looked at this morning. He’s got tingling in his arm so there are a few concerns, especially around the front row. If we need to bring someone else in we will do,” he added.
Alan Dell – ordinarily third choice loosehead at Edinburgh – has been called into the squad as cover.
Elsewhere, Matt Scott misses out, with Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones the centres in the squad – plus Peter Horne, who is listed as a stand-off but is equally adept in the numbers 12 and 13 jerseys.
“That was a tough call,” conceded Cotter. “We’ve spoken to him and he accepts that he has got work to do, especially around his defence, and he’ll be working hard at that – we’ll need him again, I’m sure, at some stage.”
Cotter has picked five English based players in his squad. He says the possibility that they will be banned from playing by their employer as part of a stand-off with Premier Rugby Ltd over a disputed £400,000 injury compensation bill is not part of his thinking at the moment.
“It’s an executive issue and they’re taking care of it. Mark Dodson is dealing with that at the moment so I’m not quite sure what the agenda is or where it is going to get to. We’re anticipating having the players available to us, so as the whole thing unfolds in the next couple of days I think we’ll know a bit more,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is that you can’t deny people the opportunity to play Test match footie. I don’t think you can. It is maybe frustrating that you have people coming back injured, but international rugby is important. I hope it gets sorted out. I’m not sure where its heading or what they’re looking for but there’s smart people involved and I’m sure it will get sorted. I’m hoping that common sense will prevail.”
31-MAN SCOTLAND SQUAD FOR 2016 AUTUMN TESTS –
Allan Dell (Edinburgh Rugby) – uncapped
Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 58 caps
Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) – 1 cap
Moray Low (Exeter Chiefs) – 34 caps
Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) – 99 caps
Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) – 17 caps
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby) – 9 caps
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) – 12 caps
Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) – 25 caps
Richie Gray (Toulouse) – 58 caps
Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) – 24 caps
John Barclay (Scarlets) – 52 caps
John Hardie (Edinburgh Rugby) – 12 caps
Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors) – 9 caps
Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby) – 2 caps
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps
Greig Laidlaw CAPTAIN (Gloucester) – 53 caps
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors) – 20 caps
Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors) – 19 caps
Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors) – 16 caps
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) – 18 caps
Huw Jones (Stormers) – 1 cap
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) – 18 caps
Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby) – 2 caps
Sean Maitland (Saracens) – 23 caps
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) – 29 caps
Tim Visser (Harlequins) – 26 caps
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) – 45 caps
Image: CraigWatson- www.craigwatson.co.uk