2015 Rugby World Cup: Wary Scotland coach weighs up options

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scotland coach Vern Cotter watches over his players in training
Cotter will announce his squad on Tuesday
2015 Rugby World Cup
Host: England Dates: 18 September-31 October
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and sports extra, BBC Radio Scotland, plus live text commentary on every match on the BBC Sport website

If there's a nation in world rugby that ought to treat an apparent light at the end of the tunnel with extreme caution, it is Scotland.

In the business of getting suckered by one-off results in non-tournament Test matches then it is the denizens of Murrayfield who are the market leaders.

Vern Cotter wasn't around for many of Scotland's false dawns, but he knows too much about the cruelty of international rugby to even crack much of a smile after his team's record beating of the Italians on Saturday.

It was the most points Scotland had ever scored against Five or Six Nations opposition. Not that it mattered to Cotter.

He might not have been there with them, but he knows that Scotland have been in this kind of movie before.

Whether it was the optimism in 2010 on the back of four wins in five Tests against Ireland (away), Argentina (away twice) and home to South Africa (followed by four straight defeats in the Six Nations), or the feel-good going into the pivotal matches at the 2011 World Cup on the back of five straight wins (followed by two knockout blows), it remains a fact that Scotland are quite good at winning matches that don't matter but awful at winning matches that do.

Scotland's John Barclay crosses the line to score against Italy
John Barclay could miss out on the World Cup despite scoring a try against Italy on Saturday

Cotter has some experience of that himself in Scotland having come through an autumn that featured a blistering win over Argentina, a credible defeat by the All Blacks and a comfortable dispatching of Tonga. All of that, of course, preceded a whitewash in the Six Nations.

On Tuesday, Cotter will announce his 31-man squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Pockets of it are already known.

He has only five props left in his larger squad and all five will go. It's probable that all three hookers - Ross Ford, Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally - will also go.

However, if Cotter wants to make savings in order to bring an extra back-row or backline player then the issue of the relative worth of bringing a third hooker is a talking point.

Four years ago, Scott Lawson was Scotland's third-choice hooker at the World Cup in New Zealand. Lawson played just a few minutes in the entire tournament.

He wasn't alone. The winners, New Zealand, gave just six minutes game-time to their third man, Corey Flynn. Beaten-finalists France gave only 27 minutes to Guilhem Guirado, their third hooker.

Wales made the semis and Ken Owens, their third man, saw only 19 minutes of action in the whole tournament. Australia, South Africa and Ireland largely went with two hookers. Their extra number two saw little or no action.

Scotland's Rugby World Cup fixtures
Wednesday 23 Septemberv JapanKingsholm Stadium, Gloucester14:30 BST
Sunday 27 Septemberv United StatesElland Road, Leeds14:30 BST
Saturday 3 Octoberv South AfricaSt James Park, Newcastle16:45 BST
Saturday 10 Octoberv SamoaSt James Park, Newcastle14:30 BST

Cotter says he is not a gambler, so he mightn't cut his numbers in the middle of the front row of the scrum as Australia have done, but if he does then he knows that, if injury hits, he can parachute in McInally in the relative blink of an eye. It might be a risk, but it could be one worth taking if it means you can give that spot to somebody who might make a material difference in a game.

The Kiwi gives nothing away. Unpicking his brain would take more time than busting into Fort Knox.

On Saturday, he said he hadn't yet decided whether he was going with three locks or four and was unclear as to the numbers in his back-row - five or six. If you asked Cotter what day it is, he'd look you dead in the eye and tell you he hasn't decided yet.

John Barclay is the cause celebre. He was excellent against the Italians - strong over the ball and scorer of a try - but the feeling remains that Cotter is a whole lot sweeter on John Hardie, the transplanted Kiwi, than he is on Barclay.

Unless Cotter is prepared to sacrifice a hooker or a lock then it's hard to see how he's going to swell the numbers in the back row to such an extent that Barclay makes it. His omission could be the headline story on Tuesday.

There are issues in the backline - mostly to do with fitness. We haven't seen Alex Dunbar in the warm-up matches and nobody in the Scotland camp can say when exactly we are going to see the centre, who is recovering from a serious knee injury picked up in March.

Glasgow Warriors centre Alex Dunbar
Glasgow Warriors centre Alex Dunbar has been on the sidelines since April through injury

If Cotter is true to his non-gambling instincts then it's hard to see how he can roll the dice on Dunbar's fitness, even if he is an exceptional player. Cotter will take his duty of care responsibilities very seriously and won't opt for Dunbar if he thinks he's putting his entire season in jeopardy.

We haven't seen Sean Maitland either. It's another concern.

Maitland hasn't been the player that everybody hoped he would be, but he's capable of class performances, still a dangerous operator when the mood strikes. Scotland are short on finishers out wide. More than that, Maitland, who suffered a shoulder injury in April, would also probably be back-up to Stuart Hogg at full-back.

Cotter has been grilled on Dunbar and Maitland, but we would have been better off banging on James Robson's door. The team doctor will ultimately make these big calls - not that he would be any more forthcoming with the inside track, of course.

These men keep things tight, as they must. The hope is that the 31 players in their charge are just as reluctant to give up points as the management are in giving out information.

On Tuesday, the jigsaw will be complete and there for all to see. Next stop after that is Paris on Saturday for the last of the warm-up matches. Beyond that, the real battles begin.


Prop: Alasdair Dickinson, Ryan Grant, Gordon Reid, Willem Nel, Jon Welsh

Hooker: Ross Ford, Fraser Brown

Lock: Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Rob Harley

Flanker: Blair Cowan, Ryan Wilson, John Barclay, John Hardie

No.8: David Denton, Josh Strauss

Scrum-half: Greig Laidlaw, Henry Pyrgos, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne

Fly-half: Finn Russell, Duncan Weir

Centre: Mark Bennett, Peter Horne, Matt Scott, Richie Vernon

Wing: Sean Lamont, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser

Full-back: Stuart Hogg

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