Overshadowed somewhat by the very audible dropping of the latest European rugby bombshell, Scotland coach Scott Johnson announced his squad for the November Tests. Refreshingly, the Australian has selected both on club form and future potential, naming five uncapped players among his forty-one autumn recruits. The blend of seasoned internationals and the up-and-coming makes for a renewed strength in depth rarely seen in such abundance for the Scots, and a healthy competition across most positions.
Quite rightly, the bulk of the group (18) is made up of those plying their trade with high-flying Glasgow Warriors. The Warriors, under the guidance of Gregor Townsend, lead the RaboDirect Pro12 five games in, and can justifiably feel confident about their prospects of reaching the latter stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time.
Three of the five new-caps arrive from Scotstoun have all enjoyed stellar starts to the season. Chris Fusaro, a tenacious, out-and-out openside flanker, would likely have made his test-match bow before November but for a string of injuries. Jonny Gray, younger brother of Richie, has had a major impact with his carrying power, and is still just 19 years old. Another youngster, Mark Bennett, has long been tipped for the top, and the 20-year-old centre looks well-placed to win at least a cap next month.
The remaining two new recruits originate from further afield. Kieran Low (22) and Blair Cowan (27) both turn out domestically for London Irish in the Aviva Premiership, covering back-row positions. Both will arrive relatively unknown to many North of the border, but the pair’s versatility counts in their favour.
The back-row remains a bone of contention among many fans. Fusaro has been consistently outstanding for Glasgow, and some hope to see the return to the national side of an out-and-out seven. John Barclay, who recently cited a desire to fulfil that openside role, has also impressed for the Scarlets in the early Pro12 fixtures.
Last season’s skipper, Kelly Brown, will surely feature but in which position he packs down, and indeed whether he retains the captaincy, remain under question. That duty of leadership should fall on the more diminutive shoulders of Edinburgh scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, who, with a brilliant rugby brain and attitude to match, continues to set the standard for his capital club-mates.
Anyone who has watched Scotland over the past decade will attest to the fact that talent and depth in the two centre positions has ranged from disappointing to eye-bleeding. Players like Marcus di Rollo, Andrew Henderson and Ben Hinshelwood failed to set the metaphorical heather alight from the heart of the Scottish backline.
Now, in Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar and Bennett, the Scots have a set of talented and promising young 12s. The 13 position remains more problematic. Sean Lamont can plug the gap, but simply put, is not a centre. Max Evans has also played there in the past, and has the skill and awareness to step into midfield. Duncan Taylor, too, has worn the 13 jersey for Saracens despite featuring more often on the wing or at 12. Dunbar partnered Scott admirably on the summer tour of South Africa, and then there is the return to form of the much-maligned Nick De Luca.
De Luca, in the eyes of plenty, has had his chance at international level. Despite several notable years filling both centre positions at Edinburgh, he has rarely transferred his impressive club showings to the test-match arena. However, he remains a talented individual and something of a scapegoat for a misfiring backline, and should be afforded at least one more opportunity to cut the test-match mustard.
With the injury to Stuart Hogg, fellow British and Irish Lions tourist Sean Maitland will start at full-back, and Ruairidh Jackson will likely trump recently-recovered Duncan Weir to the fly-half jersey – particularly with Tom Heathcote struggling for game-time at Bath behind George Ford.
Elsewhere, Johnson can pick from a group of second-rows in rude health, with Tim Swinson among the form players of the Pro12 and Grant Gilchrist pushing hard for selection, and a set of outside backs that finally has some real panache. It all points to a Scotland squad with greater depth and the sort of balance that has helped the Warriors pave the way for Pro12 success. With the latest batch of Southern Hemisphere recruits hungry for a taste of international rugby, and players like Sean Cox qualifying through residency in the near future, the competition will be fierce.
Possible Scotland XV: 15 Sean Maitland, 14 Sean Lamont, 13 Nick De Luca, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Ruairidh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 8 David Denton, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Tim Swinson, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant
By Jamie Lyall – Follow Jamie on Twitter @JLyall93
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images