By Stuart Bathgate
FOUR Scotland players won their first caps at the weekend. The remaining two uncapped players in the tour squad, George Horne and Matt Fagerson, will both be named in the matchday group tomorrow for Saturday’s match against the United States. But while Fagerson is one of a large group fighting for a place in the back row, Horne is in the unusual position of being the first-choice scrum-half this summer – despite having yet to play for his country.
At least, that is how things appear, Greig Laidlaw being absent and Ali Price having been ousted as first-choice No 9 for Glasgow. Scotland and Warriors assistant coach Mike Blair, however, sees a more complex picture. Himself a former international scrum-half, who had a long-standing rivalry with Chris Cusiter, Blair does not think that Price’s form dipped too badly in the season just ended. Indeed, he believes that the rise of Horne could be just the impetus Price needs – with the national team as a whole getting the benefit of the increased competition in the position.
“It is hard to take, but I was better for it,” said Blair of the time when he was replaced by Cusiter. “I played better rugby once I had been challenged for that position – I started most games under Frank Hadden’s reign for two or three seasons.
“The previous season he [Price] had good runs and he built on that and there are times when your resilience is challenged. That has been the situation with Ali. From his perspective it has given him a bit of a kick and he will be a much better player for it.
“We were pleased with how Ali played off the bench in the Six Nations. He had some good game management and he helped to close a couple of games out. A couple of games he spurred things up like the France game and managed things well.
“From a Glasgow point of view it was not a case of ‘Ali, you’re struggling,’ it was more George Horne had a real impact through the season.”
One possible reason for Price’s loss of form is that Finn Russell, his half-back partner for both Glasgow and Scotland, similarly had an indifferent season. But Blair pointed out that there were times when the pair were outstanding, and suggested that Russell would rise to the challenge of a new life in France with Racing 92 in France.
“Ali and Finn have had a couple of cracking games this season. You look back at the Australia and New Zealand games for Scotland – there was talk of them being a world-class combination. That doesn’t change overnight. They’re two quality operators.
“With some players it’s good that they leave and experience something different. Finn is one of these guys that needs to be constantly challenged.
“He needs something new; he needs to continue to prove himself. It would be great for Finn to come back to Glasgow in a couple of years’ time. He’s signed for three years, I think. Coming back having matured, having enjoyed it – it’s great for him.
“He’ll be playing with world-class players, he has to prove himself, learn French. It will be good for him.
“As a result of him moving on, other players will get a chance. I see Adam Hastings, Peter Horne will get more time at 10, Ruaridh Jackson was at 10 [against Canada]. With Finn playing in France there will be more selection dilemmas.”
Right now, though, the biggest selection dilemma is at scrum-half, not stand-off. And that dilemma will become all the greater should the 25-year-old Price live up to Blair’s prediction and rise to the challenge posed by Horne.
The Keith Russell Affair in depth: