Following Scotland’s thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks on Saturday, John White evaluates Andy Robinson’s options in the backline.
For the Scottish amongst us, Saturday evening’s game at Murrayfield was an example of how not to push forward in international rugby. The thousands of tartan-clad supporters both at the ground and in the countless pubs and homes across the globe would have greeted the final whistle with a mixture of relief (that it’s over), inebriation (as inevitably that’s the only way to overcome such a thrashing) and finally disappointment.
After the fantastic run of wins that has seen Scotland overcome Australia, Ireland and Argentina twice at home, being brought back down to earth by the best side in world rugby begs a few questions for Scotland – most notably, who are the players that can provide much-needed attacking spark in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup?
Scotland are blessed with attacking talent, but who can establish themselves in the Scottish backline? And, is there even time for a side to emerge that can cause problems in New Zealand next year?
Max Evans looks to have cemented himself as the attacking fulcrum of the side at 13 – and it will be with bated breath that each Scotland fan awaits the team announcement this week to see if their talented 13 is fit after the neck injury sustained in the final play of the game on Saturday. However, playing alongside a battering-ram in Graeme Morrison at 12 – who is undoubtedly talented defensively – seems to stutter the midfield’s creativity.
Alex Grove was favoured during the period when Robinson first took the hotseat, and proved to be a long term bet in the midfield after the win over Australia. However, the young Worcester centre has failed to find his form at Edinburgh, and will soon be returning to play Championship level rugby at Worcester.
Cue young Northamption tyro Joe Ansbro. Featured back in 2008 as one of The Rugby Blog players to watch, Ansbro has built a reputation as a solid defender (learning his trade alongside Jon Clarke and James Downey at Northampton) and as a mercurial linebreaker with pace to burn. I’d like to see him given an extended run in the side.
At fullback, Hugo Southwell is benefiting from a shocking lack of talent in the Scottish ranks in the back three. However, Rory Lamont of Toulon is playing fantastic rugby in the South of France in the 15 shirt, and should he be fit for the next game, could offer real pace and physicality from full-back. This, coupled with the likes of Nikki Walker and Sean Lamont could provide a formidable unit, although, they still don’t create that buzz of excitement when they get the ball – a feeling that will be missed by the Murrayfield faithful following the premature retirement of winger Thom Evans.
Then we come to the pivotal positions in the backline – 9 and 10.
Ruaridh Jackson made his long-awaited debut towards the end of the All Blacks game, but he’s not ready to make the step up to the 10 shirt. Dan Parks should retain the jersey, but Jackson should be his long term understudy, with the youngster being blooded into the game in a similar style to that of Trinh-Duc for France.
The 9 shirt is a bit more difficult. Greig Laidlaw was the beneficiary of a long list of injuries at scrum half for Scotland – a position in which they are actually blessed with talent. Mike Blair was ineffectual before sustaining a concussion on Saturday, and the sniping runs of Chris Cusiter or Rory Lawson were sadly absent. Ben Youngs showed how dynamism at scrum-half can create forward momentum for a team, and Cusiter and Lawson are the men to do this for Scotland…as long as they can stay fit.
Whether Andy Robinson can get his first choice backs on the field at the same time remains to be seen, but there is talent around and they could yet be a threat at the Rugby World Cup next year.
By John White