Coach Andy Robinson has gambled in his team selection in order to get Scotland back to winning ways, against France, in the RBS Six Nations Championship at Murrayfield tomorrow.
By recalling flanker John Barclay to the blindside of the scrum back row rather than a more robust ‘bruiser’, the aim will be to up the tempo and knock France out of their stride at all-important collisions and breakdowns.
The other side of that coin will be to risk France focusing their heavy artillery down the narrow side of scrums and rucks and the extent to which the home gambit pays off could go a long way to determining the outcome.
Question marks continue to spring up against Robinson’s selections. For example, the half back pairing of Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw is the sixth different one in as many matches, although, to be fair, the situation has to an extent been forced on the coach, first choice Kelly Brown is injured and so, too, is Al Strokosch while a scenario where Scotland are seeking to end a run of four successive defeats is hardly an ideal one in which to blood another new cap in either Stuart McInally of Edinburgh or Glasgow’s Rob Harley, albeit the latter has been at various training camps for a while now.
The Scottish approach to breakdowns certainly needs attention as noted by Edinburgh Accies coach Simon Cross, a former A international flanker, who, in the wake of the last outing, wrote on Twitter, referring to the referee: “Poite not reffing the breakdown properly. Wales getting away with murder! Scotland need to focus on ball presentation and leg drive in contact. Wales are pretending to roll away, hands up etc and not actually moving. They are also taking out support runners.”
It is the job of the breakaways to act as enforcers to resolve such situations and Barclay has been operating all around the Glasgow back row where he has impressed colleagues who will be on duty at Murrayfield tomorrow.
Says Graeme Morrison: “It is testimony to John’s ability that a place has to be found for someone like him when Ross Rennie has been going well for Scotland. John came on against Wales (for Strokosch) and put in a helluva shift.”
The game had started to break up by that stage, of course, but Morrison nevertheless maintained: “John’s been doing the same for Glasgow, season in, season out. I’m confident he’ll slot in there (at blindside) as though he has been doing it all his life.”
Richie Gray notes that it will be a particularly determined Barclay.
“John’s a very good player who will slot in. He has a point to prove. He is still hungry and wants on the ball.”
In Scotland’s favour are some elements of surprise and France won’t have been able to make detailed studies of various Scottish units, notably half back.
Here the pair sometimes switch positions depending on the situation they find themselves in and while Blair claims this has rejuvenated his game Laidlaw says: “Carrying on where Mike and I left off with Edinburgh in the European cup is certainly the idea. I’m pleased to be playing with Mike. We have good club form together and we are hoping to take it on.
“We talk on the run and if I’m closer to the ball sometimes I’ll just go in (to the ruck) and he’ll play first receiver.
“It is an aspect that has worked well for Edinburgh.”
Significantly, perhaps, Blair had come off the bench when Laidlaw scored a typical scrum half try in Wales as he pounced from close range almost under the feet of the home defence. “The ball came back and I noticed they had left a space. I’m not the biggest and I felt they left enough space to get through after making sure the referee had them onside.”
Most encouragingly for the Scots are statistics showing they are generating possession if not scoring although again Laidlaw refuses to take comfort in anything other tan victories.
“I would be worried if I never saw the type of stats we are producing and we were under more pressure. But it is all about winning the game and I always keep coming back to that.”