When you plug John Hardie’s name into Google, a flurry of news stories and blaring headlines populate your screen, few of them flattering. The Scotland flanker’s name will forever be attached to controversy, talk of drug use and disciplinary sanctions.
While playing for Edinburgh in November 2017, Scottish Rugby suspended Hardie for what it called “gross misconduct”. The ban was widely attributed to his alleged use of cocaine. Those allegations have never been officially confirmed but neither the player nor the governing body has done anything to deny them.
Hardie endured a bruising year. Edinburgh let him go when his contract expired last summer. Clermont took him on trial but a back complaint meant no offer was forthcoming from the French giants, and it wasn’t until October that Newcastle Falcons gave him the chance to play again.
The New Zealander is soaring now at Kingston Park, his rugby at last generating more copy and greater attention than his misdemeanours. He has recently penned a new two-year deal and he is back to his awesome best on the open-side flank, the torpedo tackler and turnover fiend who first arrived on these shores three-and-a-half years ago.
His reward? A return to the Scotland squad and the very tangible possibility of ending his 20-month wait for a 17th cap during the Six Nations Championship.
Gregor Townsend can usually count on a formidable back-row contingent but even with Hardie’s resurrection, the continued absence of John Barclay leaves a gaping hole in the pool of loose forwards he named on Wednesday. The stricken captain brings street-smarts and brilliance in spades and in this cruellest of tournaments, Scotland will miss him dearly.
Their injury list is long and bears some star names. Nineteen men are unavailable, among them Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Mark Bennett and Duncan Taylor – all of whom you’d fancy to be in the squad if fit and producing anywhere near their best stuff.
Where Townsend is most short of battle-hardened options is in the front-row. Brown and George Turner are out, at least for the first game or two, so the coach will be praying no mishaps befall the irrepressible Edinburgh hooker Stuart McInally.
In naming three uncapped players and McInally ahead of record appearance holder Ross Ford, he has probably signalled the end of the great Kelso man’s international career. Ford is one of the most diligent and dedicated players around, a tremendous servant to the Scottish game. He has racked up 110 caps and is one of the last Scots to feature in a Lions Test. But he will be 35 in April – with Edinburgh poised to recruit another hooker and his contract expiring in the summer, his days look numbered.
One of the trio of rookies – Dave Cherry of Edinburgh, Glasgow’s Grant Stewart or Leicester Tiger Jake Kerr – will be on the bench against Italy on 2 February. Between them this season, the three new boys have only nine club starts across their league and European competitions and the challenge will be mighty for whichever of them gets the nod.
The prop situation is less troubling, with Simon Berghan, WP Nel and uncapped D’arcy Rae available on the tight-head side, covering Fagerson’s absence. But you feel Townsend would prefer to have a more seasoned, strong-scrummaging loose-head at his disposal than Alex Allan, Jamie Bhatti or Allan Dell. Certainly, had South African Oli Kebble served his eligibility period, he’d be in pole position to start in a couple of weeks’ time.
Unusually for a Townsend squad, there is no stunning, journalist-confounding curveball. Gary Graham, whom it seems is now decidedly Scottish, is in. Henry Pyrgos and Duncan Weir would have brought control and intelligence to the squad but neither half-back’s omission is particularly shocking, even with Adam Hastings faltering at Glasgow. Much less surprising is the absence of centre Alex Dunbar, struggling for form and facing an uncertain future with his Glasgow deal up in the summer.
No-one doubts Dunbar’s fantastic qualities as a player but it has been a long time indeed since he sustained a run of fitness and good rugby. One of Warriors’ top earners, it seems unlikely he will be offered a new contract, especially one that matches his current terms. Glasgow forked out a lot of cash – by their standards – to retain Huw Jones and also gave Sam Johnson a new deal last month. With Pete Horne, Nick Grigg and the burgeoning Stafford McDowall on the books, Dunbar could soon be searching for a new club.
The Australian Johnson would be an international by now had injury not doused his chances of featuring in November. Townsend and Dave Rennie rate him extremely highly for his tackle-breaks, distribution, defensive “brutality” and leadership.
The last potential debutant is Edinburgh’s Chris Dean, a quietly excellent performer for some time who presumably edged out colleague James Johnstone for a midfield berth. Add Johnson, Dean and Newcastle’s versatile Chris Harris to the effervescent Nick Grigg, canny Pete Horne and blockbuster Huw Jones, and Scotland’s centre stocks are in rude health. They would be ruder still were Matt Scott, Taylor and Bennett fit.
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Greig Laidlaw is again named captain and Finn Russell, dazzling for Racing 92, will be the starting fly-half. Adam Hastings is navigating his maiden season as a first-choice 10 and has recently encountered some choppy waters at Glasgow.
Outside Russell and whichever two centres he plumps for against Italy, Townsend can call upon some wonderful strike-runners. Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones are all available, but young Darcy Graham is in with a fantastic chance of a start.
Graham oozes Borders toughness. The little Hawick dynamo is a ferocious competitor who punches well above his modest frame and runs as if canisters of nitrous oxide were strapped to his boots.
In Edinburgh’s last two matches, wins against Toulon and the Southern Kings, he has made a combined total of 189m, five clean breaks and beaten 12 defenders. In the two before that, back-to-back derby victories over Glasgow, he made 94m, two more clean breaks and beat two additional would-be tacklers.
Graham is the sort of unflinching character Scotland need in greater numbers. To take the next step and become a credible title contender, they need more nastiness, more ruthlessness, more of the snarl and contempt that fuel Ireland and their surge to greatness.
Scotland have beaten every team in the Six Nations at Murrayfield in the past two championships but they need to get better away from Edinburgh, for their tournament form on the road has long made for grim reading.
Only a 79th-minute Laidlaw penalty thwarted Conor O’Shea’s swashbuckling Italy in Rome a year ago. Scotland last won in Cardiff in 2002. They’ve beaten Ireland in Dublin once in the last 10 attempts. Their most recent victory in Paris came three years earlier. And not since 1983 have they toppled England, the auld enemy, at Twickenham.
The prevailing wisdom used to be that Scotland’s best chance of a championship tilt came when the fixtures pitted them against England and France at home and their Celtic rivals away. That no longer rings true – partly because of Scotland’s barren away record, and partly because there is so little to choose between Ireland, England and Wales on home soil.
The Six Nations is always unrelentingly brutal, but this year could be the most keenly-contested for many a moon. Ireland are the defending champions, Grand Slam winners last year, the form side in world rugby and conquerors of the All Blacks. Wales are third in the world rankings, a place behind them, after beating Australia and South Africa in the autumn and resurgent England are one spot further back. Each nation has a frightening array of talent and depth that Scotland are still trying to develop.
When the chips are down, where do Townsend’s men rank among these heavyweights? Missing Barclay and his chums, are they good enough to go toe-to-toe with this lot? Ireland visit Murrayfield in the second round of fixtures – a mountainous test and a match that will tell us much about where Scotland are and how far they have to go.
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