HEAD coach Vern Cotter insisted today that there are “a whole raft of positions” up for grabs in his final World Cup squad after naming an experimental line-up for the first of four warm-up Tests against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday evening.
Hugh Blake, the 22-year-old New Zealand born flanker, is handed a first cap in what will be only his second professional start since he arrived in Scotland last year. Edinburgh utility back Greig Tonks is given a run-out at stand-off, with Wasps’ Ruaridh Jackson moving from his more familiar No.10 berth to start at full-back.
There is a strong Glasgow feel to the backline, with captain Henry Pyrgos joined by a Warriors centre pairing of Richie Vernon and Peter Horne, veteran Sean Lamont adding some experience on the wing, and Tim Visser, who left Edinburgh for Harlequins at the end of the season, on the opposite flank.
In the pack, Grant Gilchrist, who was named captain for last year’s autumn Test series but didn’t feature after injury ended his season, returns at lock. Alongside Blake in the back-row, Blair Cowan moves to blindside flanker and Edinburgh’s David Denton, who missed the end of the season under return to play protocols following a head injury, starts at No.8.
There are a couple of enforced changes to the initial 25-man travelling party which was announced on Tuesday, with Ross Ford on the bench in place of Stuart McInally, who has a stomach bug, and fit-again Matt Scott covering the absence of Tommy Seymour with a strained hip.
The only other uncapped member of the matchday 23 is Glasgow prop Mike Cusack. “These guys get first opportunity,” said Cotter. “There are a few frustrated players and a few more to come. The measures we get back from the performance against tough opposition will give us some true indicators of where we are at. We have 46 players who have worked very hard and there are positions to be taken in the 31. There is a whole raft of positions these guys are playing for. Most importantly they get first opportunity from the 46.”
On the selection of Blake, the 53-year-old New Zealander, said: “He offers a different form of play. He gets to the wide channels quicker, has a good step and carry, and is working hard on his defence. He is a young man coming through and he has a pedigree.
“With [Sean] O’Brien and company in their [Ireland’s] back row we will get a fair idea of where he’s at.”
Asked if all members of the squad will get an opportunity to play at some point in the next three games, before the final 31-man squad is named, the coach replied: “We would like to think so. We have assessed players over the last two months in sessions where they have been opposed to each other and we now need to see them against opposition.
“Some people can train badly and play well. Some can train well and play badly. Its an opportunity and I think most players will get game time over the next three weeks.”
Cotter, who said up to three captains could be tried out in the warm-up Tests but a single captain will be appointed in the final squad, had good news regarding the recovery of Glasgow centre Mark Bennett.“Mark has got another week to reinforce his shoulder,” said the coach. “He’s probably one per cent off getting on the paddock, so we didn’t risk it this week. He will be available, I think, as from next week.”
The situation surrounding fellow Warriors midfielder Alex Dunbar is more precarious and Cotter explained: “At the moment it’s 50-50. We don’t know.
“I was never any good at gambling. The bets I put on the horses I lost every one. We’ll have to make a decision based on where he’s at, and I think over the next two weeks we’ll get an idea whether it’s positive, and we can hope, or whether it’s going to be we might have to think about other options now.”
Scotland team: Ruaridh Jackson (Wasps), Sean Lamont (Glasgow), Richie Vernon (Glasgow), Peter Horne (Glasgow), Tim Visser (Harlequins), Greig Tonks (Edinburgh), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow, c), Ryan Grant (Glasgow), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Jon Welsh (Newcastle), Jim Hamilton (Saracens), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Blair Cowan (London Irish), Hugh Blake (Glasgow), David Denton (Edinburgh). Subs: Subs: Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Gordon Reid (Glasgow), Mike Cusack (Glasgow), Rob Harley (Glasgow), John Barclay (Scarlets), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh), Duncan Weir (Glasgow), Matt Scott (Edinburgh).