SOME Scotland squads of the past have comprised a handful of world-class players, a sturdy supporting cast of maybe seven or eight, and more than a few journeymen to make up the numbers. That did not mean success was impossible – indeed, some of our most successful sides of all have had that sort of composition – but it did mean that absolutely everything had to go right if the team were to come out on top.
This time round, things are different. According to Danny Wilson, the increasing strength in depth means not only that the squad of 31 that goes to Japan will be of unalloyed quality, but also that there will be serious international ability in some of those left behind, too. Success is never guaranteed, of course, but the forwards coach is sure that the growing competition for places at the World Cup will help Scotland be in the best possible shape by the time the tournament begins.
The relatively small size of the group that can be selected – no more than a starting 15 and two benches – means that many if not most of those selected will have to demonstrate some sort of versatility: either the ability to play in more than one position, or the ease of adaptability between different playing styles against the very different opponents the team will face in their group. That versatility, in turn, makes selection a more complex and demanding job than ever – which may be why Wilson insisted that an unspecified number of places in the tour party are still up for grabs.
“Genuinely in some of the positions, right through that squad, there is real competition for places,” he said earlier this week at the squad’s St Andrews training camp. “When you look at the names, for example back row, there are quality, quality players competing for places on that plane. Long term we need to develop that more, but I certainly think we’re taking a step in the right direction.
“When you can only select a certain number it makes for some really tough decisions. Sometimes they’re made for you by injuries and lack of depth. As a coaching group we’re in a position now that we’ve got some really tough decisions and just a few weeks to make them.
“The unique situation when you’re travelling so far away is that you need to have flexibility: you have to have players who can play more than one position, because you’re restricted by distance and by tight turnarounds. You have to use your squad, but also because 31 is a small number, really, you have to know where your worst-case scenario is.
“We have four different games with very different opposition in our pool. We’ve got to prepare and have a squad capable of performing against four different oppositions while at the same time putting our own stamp on things. Scotland has its own identity at the moment and it’s a very exciting one. Our attacking stats during the Six Nations showed that side of our game was pretty high in terms of delivery. There are other areas we need to improve upon. That’s the balance, building our own identity whilst being able to play any opposition.
“We need players to jump between situational game planning, and tactics, the overriding factor is there’s a style that players want to play. We’ve got some great players who play that way at Glasgow, and a slightly different approach at Edinburgh, but still playing really good rugby. I think what we need is a good balance of those. The Six Nations showed that rugby can be a game of chess and sometimes you have to employ slightly different tactics to be successful depending on who you’re playing against. We didn’t always get that right in the Six Nations, but it’s a big learning curve for the guys who had the opportunities and I’m sure we’ll be all the better for that when the World Cup starts.”
That crucial split
Not only the identity of some elements of the squad has still to be decided, the split between forwards and backs remains to be agreed on. As forwards coach, Wilson might be expected to argue for greater numbers in the pack, but it may prove impossible to make a decision on the split purely on its own terms. Instead, an assessment could be made as to which individuals in each position absolutely deserve to travel, producing a split that neither Wilson nor head coach Gregor Townsend might have envisaged.
“I’m going to push as many forwards as we can pick!,” Wilson joked. “But we’ve yet to discuss it. There’s a decent amount of arguments for either side, but we still haven’t made those decisions.
“The next step is to play those matches – France home and away and Georgia home and away. That’ll give us really good footage and evidence to make further cuts.
“We’re in that nice fluffy time when everyone’s getting on really well because there’s no selection, but that’s around the corner for us. We’re now moving into a physical part of our training. We’ve got games coming up and that will increase. Genuinely there’s places up for grabs.
“The bonus of the Six Nations is that players got opportunities off the back of injuries – but those players took those opportunities. That gives a real selection headache when players come back fit. In Scotland we need that competition and depth, and the bonus from the Six Nations is that we’re developing that.”