Denton and Maitland out of Paris match
Meet the flanker who had only played for New Zealand Under-20s before compatriot Cotter’s call
SCOTLAND’S preparations for the RBS 6 Nations Championship have been dealt a double blow by the news that Edinburgh No.8 Dave Denton and Glasgow wing/full-back Sean Maitland have been ruled out of their tournament opener against France in 10 days’ time.
Investigations revealed Denton had suffered a calf muscle tear during Edinburgh’s 38-20 win over Bordeaux-Begles on Friday, while Maitland damaged a shoulder in Glasgow’s 20-15 Champions Cup loss to Bath two days later.
Both players underwent scans on Monday that showed that they would not be fit in time for the match in Paris. The pair have now left the Scotland training base to continue rehab programmes at their clubs and an official bulletin suggested that they could return for later Six Nations games.
It is not clear whether national coach Vern Cotter will seek to replace Denton and Maitland as he is known to prefer a small squad. Castres No.8 Johnnie Beattie had already been added to the squad, but options in that area have been reduced as Adam Ashe, who played in the autumn matches, is sidelined by a neck injury.
Richie Vernon made an impressive return to his old berth with Glasgow on Sunday and Cotter could ask him to come in. Glasgow Warrior Ryan Wilson has been suspended by the SRU after the player was yesterday found guilty of assault and is out of contention.
The versatility of Scotland’s backs means the case for calling up a replacement for Maitland is less pressing.
HAVING just arrived from Dunedin, a city that could be mistaken for a scale model of Edinburgh, Hugh Blake was never going to have any problems with the Scottish weather. Yet things have been a little chilly on other fronts since the 22-year-old New Zealander pitched up in these parts late last year. And positively icy since he was fast-tracked into the Scotland squad by coach – and fellow Kiwi – Vern Cotter last week.
Well, in some quarters at least. For while ex-Scotland prop Peter Wright reflected the views of many in calling Blake’s selection “a slap in the face” for more established players, the most common reaction was sheer puzzlement.
“Can anyone tell me anything about Hugh Blake please?” came the almost plaintive tweet from Andy Nicol.
It is not the first time that rugby’s chattering classes have been blindsided by a Scotland coach. Andy Robinson was so fond of pulling rabbits from the selection hat that his squad announcements were not so much a Who’s Who of Scottish rugby as a Who’s He? Tom Heathcote, Blair Cowan, Kieran Low and, ahem, Steven Shingler were all picked before they had figured on any media radar screens.
In Blake’s case, the cause of enlightenment was advanced not one bit when the SRU sent a platoon of press officers to Goldenacre, where he was turning out for Melrose against Heriot’s on Saturday, to ensure that the fellow was not inconvenienced by pesky journalists having the temerity to ask him a question or two. For that opportunity we had to wait a few days until the former Otago flanker had his official unveiling at the national squad’s training base near Motherwell.
It would be wonderful to report that this international man of mystery announced himself to the gathered press pack by crashing into the room in a flowing cape, underpants outside his tights, and with the brazen announcement that he was ready to take over from Richie McCaw as the best rugby player on earth. The prosaic reality was that he made his entrance in more subdued fashion, almost sheepish in fact, with a round of shy handshakes and quiet hellos.
Cotter had suggested that Blake was a big bloke, but the accuracy of that was hard to judge as he was tightly zipped up in his branded Scotland clobber. His minders had clearly ensured that his mouth was well fastened as well, so assiduously did he avoid to the controversy surrounding his call-up.
He seemed sincere enough when he talked of his Scottish heritage – passed down from his Glaswegian grandparents, Hugh and Maureen Blake – and his pleasure in meeting up with relations here. He also spoke with conviction about his long-held ambition to play for Scotland, although given his origins it is probably safe to assume that he nurtured dreams about playing in a black shirt as well.
“There is a lot of Scottishness in the family especially at family occasions like Christmas,” Blake explained. Fair enough, but there is quite a lot of Scottishness in other players, and it is more of a year-round thing. Blake has raised hackles throughout the game, not just because of his swift elevation, but because his arrival in the squad means there is no place for other opensides such as John Barclay and Roddy Grant, whose abilities are matters of record rather than speculation.
Blake recalled that the initial approach about moving to Scotland came from SRU ‘super-scout’ Sean Lineen. Soon after signing his trial contract with Edinburgh he had some conversations with Vern Cotter – “and they were really positive” – which is more of a welcome than most trialists can expect, especially when the rugby they have played for their new club is half-an-hour in an A game.
What, though, of the reception he has been given by his Scotland squadmates? “Everyone has been pretty good,” Blake replied. “Obviously there have been a few headlines but that was always going to happen.
“I have only been picked in the squad. I haven’t been picked in the team so I want to prove to the coaches first that I have what it takes and then prove it to the fans and the Scottish people.”
Aside from the climate and cultural connections to Scotland, Dunedin is also home to such characters as John Leslie and Brendan Laney, both of whom made the same move that Blake has now undertaken, with equally mixed receptions.
Yet while Laney and Leslie were barely five minutes off the plane from Auckland before they were turning out at Murrayfield, they did not enlighten Blake on the more controversial aspects of their experiences.
“They talked about the great times they had with Scotland,” he said. “I heard about the grief Brendan got but he didn’t tell me about it himself.”
Yet comparisons with those predecessors can only be taken so far. The harsh fact is that Laney and Leslie – and a host of other so-called Kilted Kiwis – had already reached a far higher level in the game than Blake has before they made the move from New Zealand to Scotland. Blake played for the New Zealand under-20 side that reached the final of the 2012 junior world championships, but he could not make the breakthrough from the Otago provincial side to the Highlanders Super Rugby franchise.
Still, Cotter is a pretty good judge of players, and back-row players especially. If Blake does make it all the way to Test rugby then the current disquiet will evaporate. Until then, though, the jury will be out.
I have only been picked in the squad. I haven’t been picked in the team so I want to prove to the coaches first that I have what it takes
SHOCK PICK: Cotter’s inclusion of largely unheralded Kiwi Hugh Blake in the Scotland Six Nations squad stunned many observers