Scotland v France: only “a couple” of places in World Cup squad still undecided

Assistant coach Blair urges players to seize their opportunities against the French

Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair passes to Greig Laidlaw at training at Murrayfield. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson.

THERE are two games to go before Gregor Townsend names his squad of 31 for the Rugby World Cup, and there may only be two places yet to be decided, according to Mike Blair. The assistant coach would not specify the positions or the names that were still in doubt, but presuming the selectors have decided how many props, hookers and scrum-halves they are taking to Japan, centre and back row look like being the areas still in dispute.

“You know, we’ve got a decent amount, a number that we’re fairly sure about, but there are a couple of positions that are still potentially up for grabs,” Blair said at a lunchtime press conference. “I won’t give it much more than that.

“ It might have been last week that a couple of guys didn’t take their opportunity and they’ve opened for the 23 that are involved in this game. We’re really looking forward to seeing how these guys seize their opportunity and put their hands up for later selection. There are obviously some names we haven’t absolutely cemented in for the 31.”

The difference between last week’s defeat by France in Nice and tomorrow’s match against the same opponents, as Blair implied, is surely that last week several of the starting XV played their way out of the squad, whereas tomorrow a handful will have the chance to secure their places in it. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Blade Thomson and Grant Stewart will need to add a good showing in Tbilisi to whatever they do when they make their debuts – Thomson from the start and Stewart when he comes off the bench – tomorrow. Similarly, will Rory Hutchinson and Scott Cummings, both of whom will be winning their second caps against the French, need a third promising outing against Georgia?

While last week’s rout was a good game to miss out on from the point of view of those fighting for a place on the plane to Japan, tomorrow’s, captain Greig Laidlaw has insisted that, contrary to what the more strident criticism suggested, the team did not disgrace the jersey in last week’s 32-3 defeat by France. The scrum-half  is confident that they will give a more accurate account of themselves against the same opponents tomorrow, and said that the players last time out had not let themselves or their country down.

“That’s certainly not the case,” Laidlaw said. “The group are tight-knit. I’ve been involved in performances that have not gone to plan before and it’s for a number of reasons. 

“We’d probably rather it happened last week than going into a World Cup. We’ll take it on the chin and whether that be from how we trained all week or how we travelled, we need to look at all of that for away games. But this week is not an away game, we’re home at Murrayfield and we simply need to concentrate on that and make sure we get the next 80 minutes right.”

Scotland were on the back foot from the opening minutes in last week’s five-try loss, and Laidlaw knows that tightening up in defence is a major job today. “We learned we can’t be soft defensively, especially against a team like France who have world-class attackers within their ranks, as I know well from playing out in France,” he continued.

“We need to be defensively really sound. We come back to the basics of the game, being really aggressive, holding each other accountable and defending properly. If we do that, we can get our hands on the ball and impose our game in attack on any opposition. We have proved that in the past and this is another opportunity for the playing group selected to go out and do that.”

Both Blair and Laidlaw also welcomed the appointment of Jim Mallinder as the SRU’s performance director. Blair said the imminent arrival of Mallinder would enable him and his fellow-coaches to focus fully on their own jobs.  “To be honest, what it will do is allow us to get on with our primary jobs,” he said.  “I don’t know a huge amount above that – I focus on the coaching side of things. I’m not exactly sure what’s in his job description, but allowing us to be able to do our jobs will be key for him, I guess.

“I don’t know a huge amount about Jim. I actually had a text message this morning from my first XV school coach who said ‘I don’t know if you know Jim Mallinder a huge amount – we know him, he’s a head teacher down in Northampton, he’s a great guy and you’ll get on with him really well’. So that’s about the most I’ve heard from it.

“But he’s a good name. He’s had good spells with Northampton and I’m sure he’ll be great with the SRU.”

Laidlaw also stressed the importance to the national team of Mallinder’s arrival, saying: “To have somebody in that role I think is vitally important. Somebody like Gregor, he’s way too busy to be looking after the overall picture. He clearly has to look after the national team on its own. 

“Somebody like Jim Mallinder has had a lot of experience in the Premiership with his time at Northampton. It’s great to get somebody in that role. I’m not 100 per cent sure at this moment in time what his remit is, but I think it’s across the whole game so we definitely need someone in that role. It will be good to get him up here and get some of his ideas and I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”

 

About Stuart Bathgate 1427 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.