Cotter: John Barclay the obvious choice to captain Scotland

John Barclay and Vern Cotter enjoy a joke at yesterday's press conference
John Barclay and Vern Cotter enjoy a joke at yesterday's press conference
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Vern Cotter hailed stand-in skipper John Barclay a natural-born leader after insisting he was always his first choice to replace Greig Laidlaw.

The Scotland head coach was faced with a difficult decision after captain Laidlaw was ruled out for the rest of the RBS Six Nations through injury.

Both Barclay and giant Glasgow lock Jonny Gray took turns with the armband when the scrum-half limped off after damaging his ankle in the defeat by France in Paris.

However, it is the 30-year-old Scarlets flanker who has been given the nod to lead out the team against Wales at BT Murrayfield tomorrow.

Cotter’s only slight doubt hinged on whether Barclay had shaken off the head and shoulder knocks which also saw him depart the Stade de France pitch early.

But in the end it turned out to be the most straightforward of choices, according to the Kiwi.

He said: “John’s been part of the leadership group and was captain when Greig went off against France, although he unfortunately then had to come off too. So it was pretty easy, all we had to do was wait to make sure that his shoulder was okay.

“John has very good leadership qualities and he’s got good people around him. The group’s been developing over the last couple of years, and he’ll be tapping into guys like Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Ali Price. He knows how to talk to referees and to captain a side. He’s looking forward to it.

“As soon as Greig was injured in Paris he took over the captaincy. It was something that had been spoken about beforehand by the coaches. Captaincy is something that comes naturally to him, he doesn’t have to force it. And he’s respected by the players so it was pretty easy.”

His elevation to the Dark Blues’ highest honour completes a remarkable comeback for a player who found himself stuck in the international wilderness for two-and-a-half years.

Even when his form for Scarlets did merit a recall ahead of the 2015 World Cup, there was further disappointment in store when he was cut from the 31-man squad Cotter took to England.

But with the same terrier-like determination that makes him such an asset around the breakdown, he refused to give up on his Scotland ambitions.

Asked to ponder the turn-around in fortunes, his coach replied with a wry grin: “That’s a funny thing, I said to John I guarantee that would be the first question.

“He’s been playing really well and he has those leadership qualities and as soon as he was involved with us it was obvious he had something, and now he’s come through as captain, so that’s a credit to him forcing his way back in there and captaining his country against Wales, where he plays his club rugby. So it’s a great day for him.”

Cotter will hope Barclay’s 57 caps and decade-plus worth of Test experience will ensure the leadership transition goes smoothly.

The wheels came off his side’s performance in Paris when they lost Laidlaw whose role as captain, scrum-half and chief goal-kicker means the Scots are effectively scratching about trying to fill three slots ahead of facing Rob Howley’s Dragons.

That 22-16 defeat exposed a soft underbelly which Cotter has sought to address with his line-up that will face the Welsh.

Flanker John Hardie, fellow back-rower Ryan Wilson and prop Gordon Reid should add some meat to the pack, while Glasgow’s live-wire No.9 Ali Price makes his first Test start in what could be a maverick half-back pairing with stand-off Finn Russell. Wing Tim Visser also comes in for Sean Maitland, another casualty after hurting ribs playing for Saracens at the weekend.

But Barclay admits there is more to his new job than he first imagined.

“It’s a huge honour for me to be sat here as captain,” he said. “I know it’s a cliché but I’d much rather win at the weekend.

“I’m not much bothered about titles, and I know Greig is the same – we want to win and that’s enough for us.

“I’ve been texting Greig and will ring him later just to have a chat with him. I can’t try and be like Greig as captain but since Monday I’ve realised just how much stuff Greig does in addition to what you guys see and even in addition to what I saw as a player in the squad. It’s opened my eyes a little bit to see the influence he’s had behind the scenes and on the group.”