Six Nations 2015: Five talking points as Vern Cotter pulls a few surprises
Scotland head coach confounds as he named relatively unknown flanker Hugh Blake in 32-man squad, axes old guard
Are Hugh having a laugh?
Apparently not, it would seem. Video evidence, as well as a few chats with people in the know, was all the convincing Vern Cotter needed to call up Edinburgh’s Hugh Blake, who has yet to play a professional match in Scotland. The 22-year-old Tauranga native is the latest ‘Kilted Kiwi’ and probably not the last. Limited to appearances for BT Premiership club Melrose and Edinburgh A since arriving in the Scottish capital in December, the scramble by journalists to find out much about the versatile former Otago loose forward probably gave the Kiwi coach something to laugh about, but you wouldn’t know it from the man with one of the best poker faces in northern hemisphere rugby. As recently as 2012, Blake made his provincial debut for Otago and was called up to the New Zealand U20 side for the Junior World Championships, where they lost to hosts South Africa in the final. Nathan Harris, his team-mate at hooker that day, is now an All Black, while backs Ihaia West and Jason Emery have represented the Maori All Blacks. Opponents that day included Handre Pollard and Jan Serfontein, now established Springboks, while young prop Allan Dell is now part of the Edinburgh squad and, like Blake, qualifies for Scotland through grandparents. Three of Scotland’s U20 squad for that tournament have been named as well: Glasgow Warriors centre Mark Bennett (then at Clermont), Edinburgh scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (then playing full-back) and Warriors outside-half Finn Russell (then playing inside-centre), although their paths never crossed in the tournament. Blake’s inclusion, as much as other players’ omission, was the big talking point at BT Murrayfield.
The demise of the not so Killer Bs
It started under interim head coach Scott Johnson, now Scotland overlord confined to the shadows. None of the once-famed Glasgow Warriors back row have made it into the latest Scotland squad. Saracens flanker Kelly Brown, a regular in the English club’s back row and winning his 100th club cap last weekend, was close to making the squad. Castre’s Johnnie Beattie, not having the best of times in a poor side, may get a reprieve if Cotter calls up another loose forward, while Scarlets openside flanker John Barclay could be the angriest man in Wales right now as his latest snub comes amid a superb season to date with the Welsh region. Young players with more skills are apparently the way forward. A change in style. More mobile southern hemisphere-inspired forwards, as destructive in the loose as they are tight in the pack, evidenced by Cotter’s insistence on continuing with London Irish loose forward Blair Cowan and now the unexpected arrival of Blake. Tried and tested; experienced players for the big stage is not what the Kiwi wants, and he isn’t afraid to bruise a few egos in quickly changing the way Scotland play. That should be expected given he spent 10 years at Counties Manukau, the provincial New Zealand club known for risk-taking and adventurous football. Huge strides were made during the viagogo Autumn Tests, but the Six Nations is where it counts. If it doesn’t work, the criticisms will be heard loudly in Pukekohe as much as Scotland’s rugby heartlands.
Trialists not welcome
Ryan Grant and Ryan Wilson may be going through an assault trial back in Glasgow, but it seems that their inclusion for Scotland is a step too far. No such problem for the Warriors, with both forwards featuring in recent weeks for their club. Wilson getting a decent run because of a number of injuries in the back row, while British and Irisih Lions loosehead Grant is just one of a number of props Gregor Townsend has at his disposal. That said, they are innocent until proven guilty, but their heads might not be in the right place for the demands of international rugby. That’s the official line anyway. More likely, the Scottish Rugby Union would probably prefer that journalists and broadcasters aren’t afforded every opportunity to remind them that two of their players (three if you include Scotland 7s international Rory Hughes) are in the dock. Of course, if their absence proves to be a factor, it will happen anyway. The door has been left open for both experienced players to return, but seemingly not until the trial has concluded.
Emergence of the Edinburghers
Standing on the verge of reaching the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals, Edinburgh have enjoyed an upturn in fortunes in recent weeks, although they remain inconsistent in the Guinness PRO12. Understandably, the SRU were keen to talk up some Edinburgh success as the capital club otherwise wilt at prolonged exposure to the overbearing aroma of success oozing east along the M8. If Blake’s inclusion hadn’t already raised eyebrows to vertigo-inducing stratospheric levels, then consider the uncapped trio who also received call-ups; like Blake, none of whom were born in Scotland. Granada-born Hidalgo-Clyne has been in marvelous form for the Gunners in recent months, whether with ball in hand or kicking, both off the tee and out of hand and was a shoo-in to receive a call-up behind captain Greig Laidlaw and Henry Pyrgos, with Chris Cusiter mising out. He probably won’t start, or even make it on to the bench unless injuries help his cause, but the experience will be invaluable. The same can be said of the remaining Edinburgh newcomers. Brisbane-born Ben Toolis may be tearing up trees for the Gunners in the loose and imperious in the air at the lineout, but he’ll need to produce something special in training to oust the Brothers Gray, who were irresistible when paired together in November. As for Hamish Watson, the Manchester-born flanker is a bit of a surprise given he has not long since returned from a dislocated jaw. He’ll back up Cowan and contend with Blake to see some game time. Usually dependable for Edinburgh, but to be thrown into the international fold remains questionable, and certainly makes any hope of a Barclay recall look extremely unlikely.
A question of versatility
Being a master of one position is out. Covering as many as you can is a sure-fire way to get a place in the squad, if you can stay fit and have some semblance of form. New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen made this clear in November as he shuffled his backline and it seems Cotter fancies a slice of that action too. Injuries, of course, have forced his hand, but to have just two relatively inexperienced stand-offs in Finn Russell and Greig Tonks seems ludicrous when England are set to name four. Fingers will point to scrum-half Greig Laidlaw stepping inside to 10, centre Peter Horne taking up the role he does on a part-time basis for the Warriors or, even more unlikely, full-back Stuart Hogg slotting in. Laidlaw would have to be favourite, most likely with Pyrgos starting at nine. There’ll be plenty of interchanging in the midfield between Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett and the back row is hardly straightforward either. There’ll also be an issue at 15 should Hogg either fail to overcome the injury he has now or get injured again. Cotter expects Hogg to play against Bath on Sunday. Sean Maitland can cover there, as can Hidalgo-Clyne. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Otago Superman could do a job there too. None of them are out-and-out full-backs, however, and that could be a problem against experienced players, who know where the soft spots will be. Few Scotland fans will have forgotten what happened in Cardiff last March after Hogg was red carded.