SUDDENLY, the picture is starting to look a lot brighter for Scotland. Yes, the national team still has some big names unavailable for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match against England – Darcy Graham, Scott Cummings and Rory Darge, for example. But a quartet who were all at one time apparently touch and go for the Six Nations opener are all now deemed available for selection, according to assistant coach John Dalziel.
The four in question are Zander Fagerson, Stuart Hogg, Duhan van der Merwe and Hamish Watson. Glasgow tighthead Fagerson has not played since suffering a hamstring injury at the start of December, Hogg and Van der Merwe have yet to play in 2023 because of heel and ankle problems respectively, and Watson only made his comeback for Edinburgh last Saturday after being sidelined since being concussed in November.
It remains to be seen whether Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend believes it is viable to put all four in the starting line-up given how little rugby they have played of late. But the fact that they have all been deemed good to go is a significant boost for the squad, who are at a training camp in Spain this week. And the return of Fagerson is especially significant, given the pivotal position in which he plays and the way in which Scotland have come to rely so heavily on him in recent seasons.
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“We were lucky enough that he was able to do a lot more than we had thought last week,” forwards coach Dalziel said earlier today of the Warriors prop. “This is his second week in training. He’s done absolutely everything, not been modified out of anything. He’s fit, available and I would suggest pushing for selection this weekend.
“I think back in the old days it would be a case of you were off for two months doing nothing. Now when there’s detail around your injury there’s a return to play which will include a return to fitness, and that’s almost a pre-season in itself. There’s an argument that injured players come back probably in a better physical state than guys who have played eight or nine or ten games, because they get to do gym work and conditioning.
“The break has been great. We’ve done a lot of work with Zander in terms of control and contact. I think he’s in the shape of his life. And he’s been dealing with contact over the last three, four, five weeks, which involves a lot of rugby that replicates game-type intensity. GPS tells us he’s good to go.”
In the case of Hogg, Dalziel revealed that the only reason the former captain did not turn out for Exeter in their league win against Gloucester at the weekend was because of an agreement between the Chiefs and Scotland staff. “He was fit and available to be back last weekend, and then there was a good conversation between Exeter and ourselves around the travel, him going back to play a game and then coming back into camp, what was best for Stuart as well. We want the best out of Stuart Hogg, as do Exeter, and we’ve got to manage him right.
“He’s fit, available. And credit to Exeter, they allowed us to keep him over the weekend as well and save that travel. Good timing for us to have him back.”
Edinburgh back Van der Merwe has not only been nursing an ankle injury, he also returned to his native South Africa late last month to get married – but he, too, is ready to play at the weekend if called upon. “100 per cent, yes,” Dalziel continued. “There’s never an easy time for rugby players to get married. He was a Worcester Warriors player at the start of the year and this was going to be a break in their season.
“When he came back to Edinburgh everybody was fully aware, so he was given the time to be married. He cut his honeymoon short because he was so desperate to get back and be involved around this first weekend. It was a very brief trip to South Africa – married and then back in with us.”
Edinburgh coach Mike Blair admitted at the weekend that he had not planned to keep Watson on for the entire game against the Sharks but had his hand forced by injuries to other players. Nonetheless, the back-row forward stayed the pace well, and according to Dalziel is another member of the national squad who appears to have been refreshed by his enforced break.
“He played 80-odd minutes at the weekend – a real baptism of fire for him against a hugely physical Sharks team. So he’s come through that in excellent condition. He’s training like he’s never been away. It’s such a boost to have him back.
“I think that’s going to be the difference for us, having everybody there,” Dalziel continued when asked how big a boost it was to have the squad announced by Townsend a fortnight ago in such good shape. “Guys that have worked so hard to come back, with the confidence that gives internally . . .
“But in their absence in a few positions, even if we look at guys like Rory Darge who are not involved at the moment, other people have come in and had the opportunities. We’ve got some players who have maybe been on the fringes of our squad in the past who are now in the form of their life. So as coaches it’s a real headache, but a good headache, around trying to get the balance right and rewarding good form as well.”
All teams suffer injuries. Our player pool, however, is smaller than other countries in key positions, such as tight head
Hopefully Zander can come off the bench and add some dynamism in the second half. He may be in great shape for training games but would prefer he didn’t start.
It’s a pity Darcy Graham isn’t fit yet, as he’s been in superb form this season, but it’s a relief Fagerson is fit and well and I thought Watson looked better in the weekend game than he has for a while. Van der Merwe’s injury seemed less of a risk and his presence is welcome too.
It would have been nice to have the choice of Darge and Cummings, but few teams enjoy a campaign without injuries to some players who would be in the running for a starting place.
Less off the pre competition hype! Let’s do the talking on the pitch & nae excuses