TOMMY SEYMOUR was in scintillating form for Glasgow Warriors at the start of the season so his absence from the Scotland team for tomorrow’s clash against Australia for personal reasons is a setback, but Sean Maitland has been going pretty well for Saracens and is a more than capable and highly experienced alternative.
Frankly, it won’t matter if Jimmy Krankie is on the wing, if Scotland’s scrum doesn’t stack up. The real concern is at the pit-face, where 100 cap hooker Ross Ford will be stretching his arms over the shoulders of two novices at international level.
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The front-row of the scrum is a dark, mysterious place and head coach Vern Cotter is clearly hoping that established logic is not a factor when his unproven props face a baptism of fire against Australia this Saturday.
In a position where experience has a greater premium than perhaps anywhere else on the park, he has been forced by injury to start the match with two players with a grand total of 11 minutes of international rugby between them to their name.
On the loosehead, Alan Dell will make his international bow against 74 cap Sekope Kepu. At 16st 10lbs, the Scottish player is three stone lighter than his opponent.
South African born and raised, Dell made 13 senior appearances for the Sharks in the Vodacom and Currie Cup competitions, having played for his homeland at every age-grade up to lifting the Junior World Championship trophy with the under-20s side in 2012.
However, he has been a peripheral player at Edinburgh – partly through injury – since joining the club in 2013. He was third choice at the start of the season behind Alasdair Dickinson and Rory Sutherland, but the former is still recovering from a hamstring problem picked up in Japan during the summer while the latter was ruled out of this series with a groin injury.
Dell, who qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother, scored a try for Edinburgh when he was a late instalment in the starting team for their Challenge Cup victory over Harlequins three weeks ago; but he was also wearing the number one jersey when the capital outfit were bullied up-front six days later when becoming the first team this season to lose to Zebre.
Gordon Reid, who has been capped 18 times by Scotland, is fit to take part in the match, but has missed a fair bit of training since being in camp due to a shoulder injury, so has only been named on the bench.
“Allan came in 100 per cent, Gordy wasn’t. That’s why we brought Alex Allan in [as extra cover]. Gordy felt something down his arm. He’s fully recovered now and, with his experience, takes his place on the bench. We were able to train with Allan right from the outset. With the limited time you get we went with the guy who had been involved for the longest time,” explained Cotter.
With Ryan Grant of Glasgow Warriors still out with a back problem, it is safe to say that Dell would ordinarily be around fifth in the international pecking order – which is significant in a nation with as limited playing resources as Scotland. However, Cotter insists that he is confident that the 24-year-old is up to the challenge.
“Because he’s an athlete,” explained the New Zealander. “He’s strong, got a good attitude and he’s a competitor. It’s our mind-set that will determine what happens in this game. We’re not going to sit back and worry that he’s only got one Test, or he’s only got three Tests. We’ve just got to get out there and put a good team effort in. If we do that and back those guys up and we believe in them, they’ll give their best shot and that’s all we can ask of them.”
On the other side of the scrum, Zander Fagerson, who has long been identified as a player with the potential to be a stalwart of the Scottish scrum for years to come, gets an opportunity to show that he is ready now to establish himself at the highest level. This will be his second international appearance after coming off the bench towards the end of Scotland’s Calcutta Cup defeat to England back in February.
The 20-year-old gave an emphatic demonstration of what he is capable of with a powerful performance against Leicester Tigers and England’s rising star Ellis Genge in Glasgow Warriors’ Champions Cup curtain-raiser against Leicester Tigers last month, but struggled – along with the rest of his team – to cope with Munster’s intensity the following week at an emotional Thomond Park.
Three Test matches in three weeks is asking an awful lot of such a young player. Once again, there is experience on the bench, but once again Moray Low’s preparation has been far from ideal. He has spent most of this season playing second-string rugby, with his three recent frontline appearances for Exeter Chiefs all being at loosehead – meaning that we can hardly expect him to be fully battle-hardened and firing on all cylinders.
“They’ve got to get started sometime. This is an opportunity to get started. These days are always going to happen. We’ve prepared as well as we can, we need to give the boys confidence, back them up, get them out there and we’ll assess it after. From there we’ll move forward but you’ve got to start at some stage,” said Cotter, when asked about the lack of experience in the side.
Australia’s scrum has been the source of considerable ridicule over the years, but head coach Michael Chieka has worked hard to make his front five more physical so that they can provide a better platform for the expansive game style they traditionally champion – and Cotter believes that we saw evidence that significant progress has been made on this front during their comprehensive dismantling of Wales last weekend.
“I think they’ve improved. They’ve intensified their forward play and they want to be able to play set-piece rugby. They want to play helter-skelter rugby at times too, but this is going to be a set-piece battle, I think,” he said.
“I know they are trying put together different styles of play and this gives them the opportunity, with the weather closing in a bit, to go to a more forward-orientated northern hemisphere style battle.”
There was also a bit of gamesmanship from the coach when he suggested that the match officials should keep an eye on some of Australia’s tactics at scrum time.
“I think at scrums they are sometimes right on the legal limit of what you are allowed to do,” he said.
This may or may not have an effect on how referee John Lacey handles the scrum – but from Cotter’s point of view, anything is worth a shot at this stage.
Image: Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk