Will easy Rugby World Cup group allow Scotland to paper over cracks?
Despite winning just one Six Nations game in the last two campaigns, Coral rate Scotland odds-on at 10/11 to reach the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, but 12/1 to top their group behind firm Pool B favourites South Africa.
Happily for Scottish supporters, their opposition on the global stage is not as likely to test them as the annual tournament among the Home Nations, France and Italy do. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to consider them contenders to win the World Cup.
Captain Greig Laidlaw has been given the task of steering Scotland through their group, but their onfield leader must rebuild shattered confidence after picking up the Six Nations wooden spoon this spring,
Turn the clock back just less than a quarter of a century to 1991, and the Scots reached the World Cup semis, narrowly losing to their Auld Enemy and neighbours England 9-6. Their pedigree is pretty good on the grandest stage, getting through to the quarter-final in ever subsequent edition until the last tournament in 2011.
On paper, Pool B which, besides the Springboks, also contains Samoa, Japan and the USA should ensure they make it through, especially as Scotland have beaten the latter, Tonga and Argentina twice during Kiwi coach Vern Cotter’s dozen matches in charge to date. Nothing can be taken for granted now, however, and the group opposition hailing for the Pacific Islands are rated just as likely to advance.
Just six experienced World Cup players are included in the Scottish squad; John Barclay (openside flanker), Chris Cusiter (scrum half), Alasdair Dickinson (prop), Ross Ford (hooker), Jim Hamilton (lock) and Sean Lamont (centre and wing).
Bringing Barclay back into the national setup after a two-year absence shows how desperate Scotland are, but Cotter is trying to bridge that gap with precocious youth.
Out of the 39-man preliminary roster, 26 players have come through from the World Rugby Under-20 Championship with eight being uncapped; Hugh Blake (opesnide flanker), Mike Cusack, Allan Dell and WP Nel (all props), Damien Hoyland (winger), Rory Hughes (number eight or flanker), Stuart McInally (loose forward and hooker), and Josh Strauss (winger and full back).
Cotter has chosen to bring in a lot of fresh young blood to the Scottish side, but doing so en masse is drastic and will thus either kill or cure Scottish rugby. He has been under-fire, however, for lacking in skilled players and controversially exploitint relatively relaxed nationality rules.
Nel, for example, is from South Africa, while Cotter has also decided to bring in 26-year-old New Zealander John Hardie, who had never set foot in Scotland prior to his call-up. There is a body of thought that Cotter is clutching at straws, but a more positive spin on this would be to defend the coach as exploring every possible avenue.
Having lost vastly experienced tighthead prop Euan Murray to retirement four months before the World Cup, after 66 caps and taking part in the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour, was a big blow. It puts extra onus on skipper Laidlaw to lead by example and show a youthful Scottish roster how to handle the grand stage.
Six Nations champions Ireland will be a real acid rest for Scotland in their first World Cup warm-up friendly on August 15th, and the jury remains out on them whatever the result. Rebuilding Scottish rugby must continue whether they make it through a plain sailing Pool B or not.