Rugby World Cup: Physicality key to Vern Cotter's choices

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Edinburgh players included in the Scotland World Cup squad
Edinburgh players included in the Scotland World Cup squad. Back row (L/R) - Grant Gilchrist, Stuart McInally and David Denton. Front row - Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Matt Scott, WP Nel, Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford
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

On the walls of the Old College building at the University of Edinburgh there is a gallery of the great and the good. Sir Chris Hoy is up there receiving his honorary degree. Just along the line, it's Sir Jackie Stewart and Katherine Grainger and through a door, Pele, bedecked in robes and wearing a smile as wide as the Maracana.

Maybe in time, Vern Cotter will up there with them. Maybe Scotland will do something outrageous on his watch and he will be a celebrated son.

Someone will have a hell of a job to get him to break his deadpan look for the photograph, of course. Degree or no degree, Stern Vern doesn't smile easily.

He was at the university to announce his 31-man squad for the World Cup and did it out there in the Old Quadrant in front of players' families and confused tourists. It was a splendid setting - but for some, a bit of a bloodbath.

Edinburgh has known many grisly occurrences in its history and here was rugby's equivalent. Cotter wielded his axe and some men who we had presumed would be in his 31 were chopped.

Blair Cowan was a mainstay of the Cotter regime, a flanker that Cotter had lauded in the very recent past. Cowan didn't make it.

Scotland's World Cup squad
Forwards (17)Backs (14)
Hookers: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby)Back three: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (London Irish), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Visser (Harlequins)
Props: Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby), Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors), Willem Nel (Edinburgh Rugby), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons)Centres: Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Richie Vernon (Glasgow Warriors)
Locks: Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors)Fly-halves: Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors)
Back-row: David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby), John Hardie (Unattached), Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors)Scrum-halves: Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh Rugby), Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors)

John Barclay was another among the cull. A campaign has built up around Barclay's inclusion. Going almost two years without starting a game for his country, Barclay at last got the nod at the weekend, against Italy at Murrayfield. And he was excellent.

He scored a try, he won turnovers, he sent a message to his coach that told him that he would be a brave man not to pick him. If Cotter noticed the message at all then he didn't heed it. Barclay is out as well and you wonder if he will ever return.

There was another casualty and another regular in Cotter's team up to now - Rob Harley. That was cruel, too. All three of the discarded have their own tales of woe. In the warm-up matches, Cowan was moved from his best position - openside - to a less-favoured position - blindside - and was then dropped for not cutting the mustard.

In his stead comes Alasdair Strokosch, an honest-to-goodness sort who most people had assumed would not make it given the fact that he has not been overburdened with caps since Cotter took over.

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

Barclay fronted-up at seven at Murrayfield but it wasn't enough and you have to conclude that no matter what he produced against Italy - tries, turnovers, rabbits out of hats - it was never going to be enough.

Cotter was sold on John Hardie, the transplanted Otago Highlander, as his first choice - and only - natural openside flanker and wild horses weren't going to get him to change his mind.

In the case of Harley, it was an ouch moment. In the training squad, Harley was moved out of the back-row - where he has played his international rugby - and into the second-row, where he's a tourist. He was then given two brief opportunities off the bench - 25 minutes against Ireland and 19 minutes against Italy - to prove that he was good enough in his new and alien position.

Not surprisingly, he couldn't do it. So he was binned. In his place comes Tim Swinson, who hasn't featured in any of the warm-up matches because of injury.

Tim Swinson was a surprise inclusion
Tim Swinson was a surprise inclusion in Vern Cotter's squad, with injury having prevented his participation in the three warm-up games so far

Swinson showed up well when playing for Glasgow against Canada at the weekend and was parachuted in to Cotter's squad from beyond left field. Nobody saw him coming.

There are always grievances when a World Cup squad is named, always players with a legitimate hard luck story to tell, if they had a mind to tell it, which they don't, given that one of the rejected could easily be called for when the injuries come. They'll toe the line in the hope of a reprieve.

Whether you agree with Cotter's picks or not, there is a logic to what he has done. In a word, it is down to power. Memories of how Ireland blew Scotland away in the physical exchanges in that famous denouement in the Six Nations championship in the spring had an impact on Cotter's 31.

He has gone for the bruising Swinson ahead of the lighter Harley. He has gone for the hard-hitting Strokosch over Cowan's all-round energy. He's gone for Ryan Wilson and Josh Strauss and David Denton because of, among other things, their ability to grunt their way across the gainline and halt people in their tracks when required and also for their ability to play in different positions across the back-row.

There are some good leaders in there. Some stand-up guys. Strokosch is a tough customer. Strauss is a big presence. Wilson is not short of a word. Swinson, too. Cotter is forever talking about the need to expand the leadership group. He thinks he's done that now.

Mostly, though, it's about physicality. Cotter mentioned how gigantic Scotland's group opponents are going to be. Nobody should underestimate how big the Americans are, he said. Then it's Japan, who also know how to bang. After that, two heavily attritional matches with Samoa and South Africa.

John Hardie in action against Italy
New Zealander John Hardie qualifies to play for Scotland on the grandparent rule

Cotter has adopted the philosophy that there's no point bringing a pea-shooter to a gunfight. He knows that people will disagree with him and they will feel for Barclay, in particular. He's not interested. Nor should he be. It's his squad and his fate. His job on the line, too.

Hardie's inclusion might stick in the craw most of all, but it was always going to happen. He is a Kiwi, yes. He wanted to play for the All Blacks, no question. He had never set foot in Scotland until recently, no doubt about it. And he's been picked ahead of a much admired Scot, Barclay. That's true, too. But he qualifies on the grandparent rule and, to Cotter, everything else is just noise.

Barclay has played 45 times for Scotland and is out; Hardie has played for 56 minutes and he's in. Cotter justified the selection by pointing out the work Hardie had done in his time on the field against Italy in Turin.

He cited his tackle stats and his ability to carry ball and his capacity to get to the wide channels. He denied that Hardie was a certain pick from the moment he agreed to come to Scotland from the Highlanders in New Zealand, but that's how it looks. Hardie's inclusion looked pre-ordained.

Elsewhere, there were no surprises. Disappointment, yes, that Alex Dunbar isn't fit enough to be selected, but no surprise. Dunbar will be missed, but this Scottish squad provides grounds for hope. Lace it with caution (always), but this is a decent group with plenty of pace and wit behind the scrum, a fine leader in Greig Laidlaw and a pack with a lot of dog in it.

The 31-piece jigsaw is now complete. Now for the giant puzzle that is the World Cup.

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