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Cotter must pinpoint Scots' top ten

03rd June 2014 11:09

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Tom Heathcote Bath Aviva Premiership 2012

Edinburgh-bound: Tom Heathcote

Vern Cotter's most important task as Scotland's new head coach is finding the man to fill the troublesome number ten jersey.

There is a falsehood perpetuated in the circles of Scottish rugby fandom that the nation's established fly-halves can be sorted into three discrete categories.

Duncan Weir, the squat pivot who had Scott Johnson's backing during the Six Nations is the kicker, boasting a handy boot but lacking the spark to ignite the backs outside him.

London Wasps' new boy Ruaridh Jackson is the anti-Weir, the maverick whose creative prowess pays dividends, but whose perennial flirtation with flakiness can render him something of a loose cannon.

Then there's Edinburgh's latest signing, Tom Heathcote. He's the grey, lurking somewhere in between the black uniformity of Weir, and the blank canvass of Jackson.

It's an over-simplified model that does the trio few favours: just as Weir produces flashes of attacking inspiration, Jackson has a mighty right boot, and we haven't really seen enough of Heathcote on a regular basis to judge, let alone pigeon-hole, his qualities as a fly-half.

Scarcely have the naughties been a good time to wear the navy blue number ten jersey, with mediocrity the norm, and, more recently, try-scoring at a premium.

For a very long time, Scotland has lacked a strong character at first-receiver, a player with a cool head, but the aura, the ability and the swagger to grab a game by the scruff of the neck. The much-maligned Dan Parks displayed it in patches, Gordon Ross - leading London Welsh's quest for promotion - was never given a fair crack, Phil Godman failed to emulate his domestic form and Chris Paterson was the great ten Scotland never had.

It is almost as if the fabled Scottish pivot production line, that which crafted and packaged Jock Turner, Ian McGeechan, John Rutherford, and Craig Chalmers before followed its industrial counterparts into decline and extinction in the dwindling days of Thatcherism, the machinery spitting out Gregor Townsend, one last gem as a parting gift before juddering to a halt for the final time.

Fast-forward eleven years since Townsend played his 82nd and last Test, and the nation's fly-half factory remains in a state of disrepair.

Weir endured the unenviable task of steering the Scottish ship through the troubled waters of transition, and while standing flat and storming the gain-line in search of enticing gaps and trundling front-rows does not come naturally to him, he proved his mettle in the Test arena with a thunderous winning drop-goal in the Stadio Olimpico.

Now it is Glasgow Warriors' Finn Russell who is setting the tartan tongues a-wagging. Aged just 21, he's usurped Weir at Scotstoun, shown flair in abundance and a strong head when the chips are down. The Scottish selectors like that, particularly in an era where several head coaches must have been tempted to offer the late Iron Lady herself a run-out in the fly-half jersey - she'd certainly have handled the pressure better than many of its previous incumbents.

It's early days yet, but Russell looks to be the real deal; Heathcote's homecoming is a crucial step too: the duo need game-time, and lots of it. Not least after the latter, just seven months Russell's senior, has spent the past season playing second, sometimes third fiddle to Bath's blue-eyed boy, George Ford.

One would hope Alan Solomons chooses - or is ordered - to sit him atop the fly-half pecking order in the capital, with the promising but untested full-back convert Greig Tonks offering competition, and Carl Bezuidenhout a back-up.

But it's now down to Vern Cotter to spend the coming months pinpointing his number one number ten and stick with him as the World Cup looms. I'm not convinced any of the past six months' tinkering has done Scotland much good, nor arrived at anything but the irrevocable conclusion that openside flanker is not Kelly Brown's best position.

Cotter's first tour is a big one, the schedule daunting as the players are whisked away for four more matches at the end of another gruelling season. It's up to Johnson in his new role as Director of Rugby, and the SRU's shiny new academies to kick the old production line back into gear. But arguably, the new man's primary objective, the first piece of his selection jigsaw puzzle should be solving Scotland's recurrent fly-half dilemma. This squad needs a steady hand on the tiller.

By Jamie Lyall

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