SCOTLAND head coach Vern Cotter has defended his decision to name Kiwi import John Hardie in his Rugby World Cup squad just over a month after the openside flanker arrived in the country.
Hardie’s inclusion comes at the surprise expense of Blair Cowan, another New Zealand-born forward who had been Cotter’s first-choice No 7 through last year’s autumn Tests and the 2015 Six Nations. Scarlets back-rower John Barclay, who delivered a stand-out try-scoring display in the 48-7 rout of Italy at the weekend, is also left out of the 31-man squad, which was announced to the public in the Old College Quad at Edinburgh University yesterday.
Hardie, who qualifies for Scotland through a grandmother and had been tracked by the SRU for some time, arrived in mid-July after his contract with Super Rugby champions Highlanders came to an end. He made a solid debut for Scotland in the 16-12 win over Italy in Turin, playing for 57 minutes before limping off with a minor injury.
Cotter denied that Hardie’s place in the squad was guaranteed from the moment his plane touched down. The coach said: “I said right from the start that he had to prove himself and he was dumped right in there.
“I just shook his hand and said if you’re good enough you’ll make it and if you’re not then you won’t.
“He didn’t say ‘boo’, he just got on with his work. He’s impressed us during live sessions in training and during the time he was on the field against Italy.”
When asked if he understood concerns over a player, who is currently without a club, being parachuted into the squad at the expense of more established and homegrown talent, Cotter said: “I only want Scotland to do well and I believe Hardie has a profile that will help this team perform.
“He’s a specialist seven and gets into the right channels, is strong on the contact and can carry so I’d say he’s a good character to have. I just want the best team out on the paddock.”
The other big surprise in Cotter’s selection was the inclusion of Glasgow lock Tim Swinson, who has missed all of the World Cup preparation after picking up an ankle injury at the end of the season. Swinson was man of the match for Glasgow against Canada in a Nova Scotia friendly at the weekend and comes back into the squad, with Rob Harley and Jim Hamilton missing out.
“Tim came to France and could not train,” said Cotter. “He felt his injury was more severe than first anticipated. We stayed in touch with Glasgow and he turned in a very good performance against Canada at the weekend. We had to wait until our game was finished until we made our decision as well. He was named man of the match which certainly helped him.”
As expected, scrum-half Greig Laidlaw was named as squad captain for the tournament, while Alex Dunbar was left out after failing to recover from a knee injury – though Cotter revealed the Glasgow centre could still feature as an injury replacement later in the tournament.
South Africa-born forward Josh Strauss, who becomes eligible for Scotland through the residency rule five days before the Pool B opener against Japan, was named alongside Edinburgh prop Willem Nel, who qualified under the same regulations in June and has two caps already.
Full-back Sean Maitland, who has not played since January because of a shoulder injury, was described as “100 per cent fit”. Wing Tommy Seymour and prop Ryan Grant have both recovered from minor injuries and make the squad. Stuart Hogg was wearing an ankle brace yesterday due to soreness following Saturday’s game, but it was described as precautionary and not a concern.
The other players still in contention for selection cut from the final 31 were Chris Cusiter, Adam Ashe, Hugh Blake, Greig Tonks and Ruaridh Jackson.
With a match against France in Paris on Saturday still to negotiate and the possibility of injuries in the tournament itself, Cotter was keen to stress that the door is not closed.
“One of the things that history tells us is that these players are just one injury away from getting back in,” he said. “All the players are disappointed. You can understand how Blair felt. He is a big man and he will be working hard in case he gets the opportunity to come back.”
Cotter said the squad, which has a 17-14 forwards-backs split, was picked with the aim of having at least two players for every position and with an emphasis on those who have the versatility to cover other positions too.
He also said that power was a key consideration due to the type of opposition they will encounter in England later this month and added: “There is no point in throwing your darts at the right places if they don’t have the weight to stick in the board. It is about making sure you can impose your game on the opposition and, at the same time, resist theirs.”
Richie Vernon makes history as the first Scot to feature in a World Cup as both a back and a forward. He was a flanker in New Zealand four years ago but this year goes as one of the centres after switching in late 2013.
SCOTLAND WORLD CUP SQUAD
Al Dickinson (Edinburgh)
Ryan Grant (Glasgow)
WP Nel (Edinburgh)
Gordon Reid (Glasgow)
Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons)
Fraser Brown (Glasgow)
Ross Ford, (Edinburgh)
Stuart McInally (Edinburgh)
Jonny Gray (Glasgow)
Richie Gray (Glasgow)
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh)
Tim Swinson (Glasgow)
David Denton (Edinburgh)
Josh Strauss (Glasgow)
Ryan Wilson (Glasgow)
John Hardie (unattached)
Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester, capt)
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow)
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh)
Finn Russell (Glasgow)
Duncan Weir (Glasgow)
Mark Bennett (Glasgow)
Matt Scott (Edinburgh)
Peter Horne (Glasgow)
Richie Vernon (Glasgow)
Stuart Hogg (Glasgow)
Sean Lamont (Glasgow)
Sean Maitland (London Irish)
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow)