Clock is ticking for Scotland
January 20, 2010
Head coach Andy Robinson warms up for his first Six Nations campaign in the Scotland hotseat © PA Photos
It's easy to learn a lesson, it may not be quite as easy to remember it. Upon his appointment as Scotland coach one of the things that Andy Robinson stated loud and clear was that this time he would be focused on just one thing.
Instead of running around and worrying about development of players for the future, the 'A' team, the U20s etc all of Robinson's considerable energies would go towards winning the next game with Scotland. International rugby is about nothing else so the coach would be about nothing else. Winning was the first, the last and, at the risk of sounding like a Barry White song, the everything in Test rugby.
Or so we thought. Despite the last Rugby World Cup final being held in Paris what feels like fortnight ago, the next tournament is looming large next year and occupies a fair part of most coaches' thinking. Already in announcing their respective squads both Warren Gatland and Declan Kidney have admitted that they each have one eye on the World Cup, hence the 17 year old winger Tom Prydie in the Welsh squad.
Some coaches are clearly ahead of the game. Robbie Deans in Australia has blooded several young backs and reinvented his front row. If he can just persuade Dan Vickerman to return to action the Wallabies will be there or thereabouts come Rugby World Cup 2011. The same can be said of France with Maximes Mermoz and Medard to the fore alongside the brutal young loose-head prop Fabian Barcella.
England are hopelessly behind the times and Martin Johnson's natural caution means that they will stay there while Scotland are somewhere between the two.
Robinson needs to get some promising youngsters up to speed and quickly. Chief amongst them are the uncapped duo in the Scotland squad, giant lock Richie Gray and fly-half Ruaridh Jackson. Also the twin breakaways Ross Rennie and Richie Vernon who have just a couple of appearances between them (it's obviously a good time to have a Christian name starting with an "R"). Vernon is currently becoming an Xbox expert while trying to overcome a bout of glandular fever. He hopes for some involvement in the Six Nations but you wouldn't want to bet on it.
The rest of them will almost certainly play a part in the upcoming Championship and it is almost certainly too early for them. Without a World Cup around the corner Gray would be given more game time and the same is true of Jackson who has started exactly one game for Glasgow this season! Meanwhile, Rennie has gone one better and has started two pro matches this season while only playing one weekend in three since a troublesome knee kept him sidelined for the best part of two years.
With the best will in the world there is no way that these youngsters are fully prepared for the intensity and scrutiny that comes with Europe's showcase rugby competition. Robinson is gambling on youth with a view to hot-housing those youngsters that he deems vital to Scotland's World Cup hopes. Despite all those promises he too has one eye on the future and one eye on the Six Nations.
The coach was in jocular mood when announcing the squad of 30 players (plus some hangers on) considering that his squad is already missing the services of Ally Hogg (injured), Alasdair Strokosch (injured), Richie Vernon (Xbox fever), Simon Taylor (unavailable), Mike Blair (injured) and Euan Murray (to his Christian beliefs) although it's a moot point whether the big Saints' prop would have started.
Still Robinson insisted that there is plenty of competition for places in the squad and that is certainly true at 10. After picking one fly-half (Phil Godman) in the autumn squad Robinson has changed his mind and picked three (Godman, Dan Parks and Jackson) and another one as backup in the form of Chris Paterson should the first three fail. Scotland's most capped player is sitting on 98 Test caps and should he appear at any stage against France he will hit the century at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium; quite an achievement for a fellow who is 13 stones soaking wet.
Paterson has kicked most of Scotland's points over the last decade or so but the men in blue have found tries hard to come by and they are not alone in this. While Robbo has strike runners in the wide channels, Simon Danielli, the Lamont brothers and the two Evans siblings, creating a bit of space for them has been a problem. The midfield is a minefield and Ben Cairns, who started against Argentina, has taken the rap and been jettisoned from the squad altogether.
If Robinson is going to insist his team attacks with the ball in hand, and most commentators expect exactly that, then his playmaker options are narrowed down to Godman and Jackson with Parks held in reserve for a rainy day, literally speaking. Godman will almost certainly start against France and Jackson will get some game time; whatever else you say of the 21-year-old he doesn't want for confidence. Gray will come off the bench and Rennie will get game time late in the tournament.
So despite promising a deadly focus on winning, winning and winning, Robinson is actually indulging in a little sneaky player development on the quiet. Or, as he might claim, "winning, winning, winning (next year)".
Here is the possible team for France: H Southwell; S Lamont, M Evans, G Morrison, T Evans; P Godman, C Cusiter; A Jacobsen, R Ford, M Low, N Hines, A Kellock, K Brown, J Barclay, J Beattie
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