The Paterson debate
January 13, 2009
Chris Paterson's best position for Scotland may be fly-half, but will he get another chance to play there? © Getty Images
What do you do with a player like Chris Paterson? The answer may seem obvious because Scotland's most capped player has single-handedly won more matches for Scotland that anyone else alive.
He is a natural rugby player, someone that the old guard would call "a good footballer", he has excellent instincts and he is a model professional. He doesn't drink, not because he disapproves, but he simply never got a taste for the stuff. So why will Frank Hadden wake up in the wee small hours in a cold sweat wondering and worrying what to do with his match-winner?
The Scotland coach used to spend all his nervous energy on deciding what fly-half to pick. Dan Parks if he wanted a structured match and Phil Godman if he wanted his side to play a little fast and loose but no more. A series of poor displays for Glasgow by the Australian has effectively taken him out of the running; Parks will be lucky to make the bench when Scotland open their account against Wales on February 8.
Hadden used to bite his nails while pondering the make up of his front five, no longer. They almost pick themselves with Jacobsen, Ford and Murray at the coal face and the twin giants of Hamilton and Hines in the engine room stoking the boiler fire.
There was a time when Hadden didn't have a clue who he should pick in the Scottish midfield but now he has a simple choice as to who should partner Ben Cairns; either his Edinburgh team mate Nick De Luca or Glasgow's Graeme Morrison who is coming back to form and fitness at just the right time. It's tempting to pick all four Edinburgh men in the midfield (Blair, Godman, De Luca and Cairns) but I suspect that Hadden will throw Morrison into the equation if only because he makes far fewer mistakes than De Luca does.
No, the Scotland coach is spending almost all his time wondering what to do with his deadly, if not so secret, weapon. Following an amazing run with the boot that spanned the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Six Nations, last summer in Argentina he eventually missed a penalty after going 36 kicks in Test matches without missing. Eat your heart out Jonny Wilkinson!
So what should Hadden do with the Scotland match-winner? Oddly, the answer may be to drop him.
As much as Paterson has achieved the game has moved on and he has been left bobbing about in its wake, in danger of going under at any minute. Modern rugby is all about power and pace and Paterson has too little of both. He is too slow to play an international on the wing and he is so slight that he gets thrown about like a rag doll in contact and inevitably gives up either a penalty or the ball.
It's not entirely his fault although you do wonder why he hasn't been on a "two-Weetabix" diet for the last decade in an effort to put some meat on the bones on a frame that is more suited to a marathon runner.
Essentially the super-talented player has been hopelessly mismanaged. About ten years ago when he was Edinburgh coach Hadden handed Paterson the No.10 shirt and then made a horrible mistake; he demanded it back again. The playmaker's role is the one role for which Paterson was born but his lack of game time in the position means he simply hasn't learned the ropes and, approaching his 31st birthday, it is now too late.
That decision is coming back to haunt Hadden as he desperately searches for a place for Paterson in his starting line up. Despite Scotland possessing their most potent backline since 1999, the coach still seems to need his kicker somewhere in the team. Paterson has become Hadden's comfort blanket and it is easy to see why. Had Paterson not been injured early in proceedings against the Springboks in November, Scotland may well have claimed a famous scalp. Following his injury they missed five kicks at goal.
To compound Hadden's migraine, Paterson's rival at fullback Hugo Southwell has been in the form of his life of late. I don't know what he's been sprinkling on his cornflakes but the man who is best known for hoofing the ball the length of the pitch is enjoying a new lease of life as a running fullback and an adventurous one at that.
His new persona suits him. He has always had pace to burn and now Southwell has found the confidence to use it. He scored a cracking try against Glasgow a couple of weeks back and then he set up the bonus point score by sparking a counter-attack from the half way line. The journalists in the press box were rubbing their eyes with disbelief but he did something similar against Ulster two weeks later.
So Hadden's every waking moment and a good many of his sleeping ones will be spent trying to work a round peg into a square hole. Does he pick Paterson on the strength of his kicking game, and Godman has greater length in front of posts if less accuracy, or does he opt for the man in the best nick of his life? I would go for the form player but Hadden will be loath to give up the comfort blanket just yet.
Possible Scotland XV for Six Nations opener with Wales, Murrayfield, February 8 2009:
C Paterson, S Webster, B Cairns, G Morrison, T Evans; P Godman, M Blair, A Jacobsen, R Ford, E Murray, J Hamilton, N Hines, A Strokosch, J Barclay, S Taylor
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September