Six Nations squad: Vern Cotter unlikely to spring shocks

Edinburgh Rugby's John Hardie is likely to be involved in the Scotland set-up. Pic: SNS
Edinburgh Rugby's John Hardie is likely to be involved in the Scotland set-up. Pic: SNS
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When Vern Cotter named his World Cup squad last September, there were only eight Edinburgh players to Glasgow’s 16 and it will be interesting to see if that split narrows any when the Kiwi names his Six Nations squad tomorrow.

With Edinburgh five places above last year’s champions in the PRO12 standings and still basking in their back-to-back wins which retained the 1872 Cup, it would be understandable to expect a boost in the Capital contingent.

However, in the swings and roundabouts of events since that dramatic 35-34 quarter-final loss to Australia at Twickenham, it could be that the picture remains roughly the same.

Lock Grant Gilchrist is out with a long-term calf injury, while fellow Edinburgh forwards Stuart McInally, Hamish Watson and Ben Toolis are not long back from injuries. It remains to be seen if Cotter feels they are ready for the Test arena.

David Denton has departed to Bath, but that is cancelled out by the fact that No.1 choice openside John Hardie is now an Edinburgh player.

The Capital front row of Al Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel is now considered the Scotland trio too and, if all fit, those three will pack down together again when England come to BT Murrayfield on the opening Saturday, February 6.

Centre Matt Scott and scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne will be there and young prop Rory Sutherland, who was called down as late injury cover for that World Cup quarter-final, could also get the nod.

Cotter has always been keen to integrate youth into his squads and wing Damien Hoyland, who was part of the World Cup training camp last summer, could be a wildcard pick.

The Kiwis coach is on record as saying he considers the Six Nations to be a more testing challenge than the World Cup and today he will name the squad of players he believes best suited to that daunting task.

Last year’s global event in England was a magnificent success, arguably the biggest and best ever, but such is the history and tradition of the oldest international tournament that there is no “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” feel going into what should be a fascinating few months.

The dominance of the southern hemisphere nations as they took all four semi-final spots was an undoubted blow to northern prestige, but it will be back to La Cosa Nostra when ancient rivalries resume on 6 February.

There may not be the quality of the All Blacks or Wallabies or indeed the superior physicality of the Springboks and even the Pumas, but the compact and intense nature of the Six Nations makes it a different kind of test than that of last autumn. It is similar to the way football’s European Championship was often considered a more robust examination than a World Cup – until it was expanded that is, as it now seems every country in the continent gets to the Euro finals except for Scotland.

When Cotter made his comparison it was more to do with the time he got with the players. Last year the national squad was together longer than many a Hollywood marriage and it showed on the park as a well conditioned and organised unit performed well in reaching that quarter-final against Australia.

Due to a combination of good fortune, meticulous preparation and a highly-skilled medical staff, Scotland enjoyed a remarkably light casualty load compared to other nations and, in many ways, were the northern hemisphere team to take the most out of that World Cup. Hosts England had a well-documented nightmare, Six Nations champions Ireland lurched from dark horses to lame nags, injury-ravaged Wales ran out of steam, France were humiliated by the All Blacks and Italy, well they turned up and that’s about as much as you can say.

However, time never stands still in sport and, while the feelgood factor of Scotland’s recent performances continues to fuel optimism there is also a sense that it will be a fresh start from scratch when Eddie Jones’s England pitch up for the Calcutta Cup showdown at BT Murrayfield a fortnight on Saturday.

Unlike the World Cup, which included a three-month build-up of training combined with warm-up matches, the Six Nations arrives in the middle of a gruelling season that has already taken its toll.

The “Glasgow bounce” was talked about last summer too as the large contingent of Warriors players bounded into the Test arena fresh from their Guinness PRO12 title heroics and brimming with confidence. After their recent 1872 Cup and European disappointments there is understandably likely to be significantly less spring in their step at present.

Of the main injury worries that Cotter faces, Glasgow centre Mark Bennett, who was one of the stand-out performers at the World Cup, is one of the most high-profile concerns. He received an assessment on his shoulder yesterday and we will know today what his chances of Six Nations involvement are.

With fellow centres Peter Horne and Richie Vernon also on the casualty list, the return of Alex Dunbar is a timely one, while Duncan Taylor, who missed the World Cup with a shoulder injury, has been starting for Saracens.

Of other ‘Anglos’ in contention, Ruaridh Jackson has been featuring for Wasps and has a chance, while Harlequins wing Tim Visser is expected to be recovered from his hamstring injury by the middle of next month.

Skipper and world player of the year nominee Greig Laidlaw is now the undisputed No.1 choice scrum-half ahead of Hidalgo-Clyne, with Glasgow’s Ali Price probably doing enough of late to gain the third spot in the absence of the 
injured Henry Pyrgos.

Back-row will be another interesting selection, with Hardie, Blair Cowan, Denton and Josh Strauss all certainties. After being unlucky to miss out on the World Cup squad, John Barclay should make it and, while, Ryan Wilson has failed to reach the heights of his electric Pro12 final performance, Cotter is an admirer of the flanker’s dynamism. That said, fit-again Watson is also highly rated and could force his way in.

All will be revealed at BT Murrayfield tomorrow morning.