Scotland player analysis part 2: Half backs & back row

Part 1 looked at the present and future players who might make up the back 3 and centres in the Scotland squad over the 4 years of the next World Cup cycle. Now for the rest of the backs and the back row.

Stand off:

Finn Russell is head and shoulders above the other candidates at 10 right now. Nobody else available to Scotland takes the ball to line and challenges a defence with footwork, physicality and a nice line in offloading the way he does. His defence is also very good and he backs it up with an attitude that brushes off errors and moves on to the next play – too often we’ve had talented players who lost focus as soon as they made a mistake. There are options to cover if he’s injured (including Duncan Weir, Peter Horne, Ruaridh Jackson and Greig Tonks – probably in that order right now) but in all honesty none of them is a serious threat to his position. Glasgow are still keen to develop Gregor Hunter but he seems awfully lightweight and he’s missed a heck of lot of rugby over the past couple of seasons. Over on the East coast Blair Kinghorn has all the physical attributes even though he’s only 18 – but he’s going to need game time to develop the skills and composure necessary to survive at fly half. He can also play full back so it looks like Edinburgh will introduce him here to find his feet (as the Warriors did when they played Russell at 12 in his early appearances). If Solomons is not willing to play him at 10 in the second half of the season once he’s had time to get used to training full time as a pro then the SRU should be looking to get him out on loan ASAP – probably to London Scottish.

Scrum half:

The quarter final against Australia saw probably Greig Laidlaw’s finest performance in a Scotland jersey. If he can maintain that level as his baseline and add a bit more speed around the breakdown and extra attacking intent he will be a hard man to shift. The player who may be able to do it though is Sam Hidalgo-Clyne who has something a bit special about him. He’s shown for Edinburgh that he’s quick, aggressive and can match Laidlaw’s contribution as a place kicker. His dynamic style would be a good fit for the way the rest of the Scotland backline want to play the game. Henry Pyrgos came of age for Glasgow last season but he hasn’t been able to translate that to the international stage when given the opportunities. It’s too early to write him off just yet but by the next RWC we may be looking at one of the two young Glasgow scrum halves that Mike Blair has been brought in to help develop. Ali Price is a nuggety scrapper of a 9 but combines it with slick service. George Horne has the skills to play across the back line but his diminutive stature means he’s only ever likely to make it as a pro at scrum half – and it may be his size that makes international recognition more difficult. Scott Steele of London Irish is the name that could come into contention for a squad place sooner rather than later as someone with plenty of first team rugby behind him, although he’ll have to see off the challenge of could-have-been-Scottish Brendan McKibbin first for his club.

Blindside:

Scotland started four different players in the number 6 jersey across their five RWC encounters which suggests that this is the one position in the starting XV that no-one has really put their stamp on. Josh Strauss seems to be the most likely candidate in the short term and he’ll enjoy the opportunity to get back to Glasgow and try and put some things right after his RWC preparation was hampered by a poor build up. However it’s still not certain that he and David Denton can play in the same back row together and the Beard to be Feared could find himself in shoot out for number 8 with Dave rather than working in tandem. Alasdair Strockosch may have made his final contribution to the national side and should head back to Perpignan with our thanks and memories of some great hits. Ryan Wilson managed to play himself into and out of form in the space of a few months and will need to show something special for his club to break back into the national setup. Blair Cowan is consistent and reliable so his performance level is never going to drop the way some players will…but it’s also never going to lift the way other players are capable of and he’s another that should really only be emergency cover. Rob Harley’s early season form may see him come back into contention just for sheer workrate and nuisance value at the breakdown. Ultimately though all these players may just be keeping the jersey warm for Cornell Du Preez who qualifies under residency next summer. A barnstorming carrier of the ball with great hands for a big man he could answer some serious questions for the Scotland coaches.

Openside:

John Hardie has taken to international rugby like a Weegie to Buckfast (or maybe like an Edinbugger to Barbour jackets would be more appropriate given his new home). He tackles like a train and has carried and linked well with ball in hand. The side just need a bit more of a turnover threat but that may be more of a tactical issue than a problem for the player himself. Ryan Wilson and Blair Cowan both covered 7 while Hardie was suffering from concussion but given the quality of candidates elsewhere it will be disappointing if they are considered at openside rather than at 6 where they are more likely to make a contribution. Hamish Watson should be the next name on the list and it’s imperative that he is brought back into the squad and adds to his cap total soon. Hardie and Watson being at the same club is maybe not ideal from the perspective of game time at Edinburgh but the younger man should learn a lot from his Kiwi colleague. Glasgow have been stockpiling opensides although Simone Favaro is not eligible to bring his brand of bonkers to a rugby pitch for Scotland. Of the remaining four, Hugh Blake looks the most likely to break through. Blessed with a rather extravagant skillset he has already started at outside centre for Glasgow and shown footwork that Mark Bennett would be proud of. Now if only he could get some game time in his favoured position…Chris Fusaro remains a steadying presence for the Warriors and won’t let anyone down but lacks the physicality to really make a difference at the top level. With the additional competition, the abrasive but injury-prone Tyrone Holmes may well find himself remaining in the one-cap wonder club. Will Bordill showed a lot of promise last season but his issue now is that he finds himself behind 4 capped internationals, only 1 or 2 of whom are likely to be away at any one time. A season on loan may await. Finally, is there any point mentioning John Barclay or Roddy Grant? No, probably not…

Number 8:

He showed it in the warm up matches, was solid through the pool games and then brought it big time against Australia – David Denton came of age at Test match level in this tournament. Now safely ensconced as the first choice 8 for Scotland the next challenge for Denton will be going back to his club and fighting for his place among an astonishing array of back row talent. Josh Strauss will return to Glasgow and try and get up to speed after a rather disjointed preparation sent him into the RWC a bit undercooked. Expect him to mount a challenge for a starting berth at 6 or 8 for the Six Nations. After hitting a bit of a plateau towards the end of last season and ultimately missing out on the RWC after some quiet performances in the warm up matches, Adam Ashe has been putting in some very strong showings for an understrength Glasgow team in the Pro 12. A player who can blend aggressive carrying with equally physical defence he may actually bring more balance to the back row than Denton or Strauss. The joker in the pack may be Nasi Manu who will qualify on residency before the Autumn Tests of 2018. A brutal carrier with a deft touch, Manu has already been wowing Edinburgh fans with his play, his attitude and his leadership.

In part 3 – the tight five.


Picture courtesy of Adrian Henry. Visit Rugby People for more of Adrian’s fine work.

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