Rugby: More is merrier as Scots play the numbers game

Tim Visser
Tim Visser
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In these recessionary times, at least Scottish Rugby has been doing its bit to buck belt-tightening trends.

Unquestionably, it has been a vintage year for the governing body’s official milliners as they struggle to keep pace with the new caps that have to be manufactured and supplied to those who have won Test honours under head coach Andy Robinson during the international season just ended.

A total of 46 – yes, 46 – players have represented Scotland over the course of a 14-match campaign in season 2011-12 which reached journey’s end on Saturday in Samoa and which you could reasonably be excused for forgetting began last August with a 10-6 victory against Ireland in a World Cup warm-up Test at Murrayfield.

Such numbers are surely unprecedented although what has to be taken into account is the global tournament which took place last Autumn and where, if precedent had been followed, Scotland would have played at least one more match before taking their leave.

Alas, history was made by failing to reach the quarter- finals and the Six Nations whitewash that followed added to the doom and gloom.

All of which makes the three winning performances on this month’s tour of Australia, Fiji and Samoa even more uplifting – especially when it is remembered that a dark shadow is looming with the world champion All Blacks next up at Murrayfield on Sunday, November 11.

But what team will coach Robinson choose to put out?

The total of 46 capped players does not even include Alex Grove, who toured but hasn’t appeared in an international since 2010. Also waiting in the wings ready to make comebacks are the likes of Kelly Brown, Dave Denton, Nikki Walker, Rory Lamont, Rory Lawson, Lee Jones, Allan Jacobsen, Ben Cairns, and Jim Hamilton each of whom missed the Australasian sojourn either through injury, resting or suspension.

Additionally, all the new caps in the past season – Denton, Jones, Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg, Ed Kalman, Matt Scott, Jon Welsh, Tom Ryder, Rob Harley, Ryan Grant, Duncan Weir, Tom Brown, and Jack Cuthbert – will be particularly desperate to add to their laurels. And don’t forget the new breed massing on the horizon.

These as yet uncapped rookies include Stuart McInally and Alex Dunbar, flown out to the tour as cover without being required to play, along with the likes of Sale’s Fraser McKenzie and Glasgow hooker Pat McArthur, who is particularly highly-rated by former Lions captain Colin Deans while, further down the track, Jamie Farndale has just returned from the World Under-20 championships as the tournament’s top try scorer with six.

So, the future suddenly looks a lot brighter as Scotland fly in to Edinburgh today with a world ranking of ninth compared to the 12th spot they occupied at the start of the month.

Still on the subject of bucking trends, the All Blacks are pulling out all the stops to ensure they do not go the same way as World Cup-winning predecessors England (2003) and South Africa (2007).

After their triumph, England promptly responded by losing nine of their next 14 games while South Africa’s encore amounted to losing four of their subsequent ten outings.

Having followed up with a 3-0 whitewash of Ireland, the All Blacks will undertake another eight games to Scotland’s none before reaching Murrayfield. These include home and away clashes with Argentina as the traditional Tri-Nations series is expanded to four while, on their way to Europe, skipper Richie McCaw’s team will tackle Australia in Brisbane as a “warm-up”.

Such a run creates the possibility of New Zealand looking for an 18th consecutive victory in Edinburgh and, on the evidence of the matches against Ireland, they are well down the route of re-shaping their line-up.

Among those who have just cut teeth at international level and could be in line for a first tour are winger Julian Savea, the world junior player of the year in 2011 who marked his senior debut with a hat-trick of tries in a 42-10 rout of Ireland.

Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden are other newcomers determined to be on the plane and who have helped the most demanding of rugby fans get over the retiral of Mils Muliaina, Jerome Kano and Brad Thorne while the injured Corey Jane and Richard Kahui were hardly missed.

As Scotland found when going down 49-3 against the All Blacks on their previous visit the task of inflicting a first-ever defeat in the fixture does not get easier.

But at least they will go in with some pride restored and for the first time in a long, long while Scottish rugby selection might be more a matter of who to leave out rather than who to put into the team . . .