For the first time in over 10 years as Scotland head coach, Steve McCormack is spoilt for choice this year as he selects his squad to defend their European Championship crown next month. There have never been so many Scotland international players in the professional game with almost 50 capped at full, ‘A’, Student or U19 level playing in England’s three professional divisions or in Australia’s NRL.
Add to that are another half dozen or so full-time professionals who are eligible for Scotland who have been in contact with the management team this season to show their eagerness to represent their family’s roots.
“We have managed to develop some real depth to our squad over the last four years with a lot of players getting capped, and the success of the team has meant there is serious competition for places now,” said McCormack, who took charge of his first Scotland game in 2004.
“The most pleasing thing for me has been how our high profile players have said they are desperate to play again this autumn, even though some of them haven’t had a full off-season for years. That shows the team spirit we’ve got going now. And when the young lads see the experienced star names turning up every year with that passion, it rubs off on them.”
After winning their first-ever silverware with the European title last autumn in the most dramatic fashion – clinching it on points difference in last second of the tournament – it was expected that Super League stars such as Danny Brough, Joe Wardle, and Adam and Johnny Walker would be rested ahead of next year’s 2016 Four Nations and the World Cup in 2017, however all four are keen to play. It may be McCormack who rests them and takes a look at emerging talent as Scotland have a large number of veterans coming to the end of their careers.
“We have some exciting players coming through who need to step up now and see if they can cope with international rugby,” added McCormack, now on the coaching staff at Wigan Warriors. “There are lads playing Super League Academy who (assistant coach) Dave Rotheram and I are keeping tabs on, and some youngsters coming through in League 1 and the domestic scene in Scotland. Don’t forget there are also quite a few experienced players who missed last year’s championship through injury, the likes of Dale Ferguson and Alex Szostak, who are back playing and will be competing for places.”
Scotland have opted against flying over their NRL stars such as Peter Wallace, Luke Douglas and Kane Linnett, who all had major roles as the Bravehearts reached the World Cup quarter-finals two years ago. “All three of them are fully committed to Scotland,” explained McCormack, “but it doesn’t make economic or sporting sense to bring them over this time and again next year. They need a good off-season and will hopefully be fit and raring to go next autumn in the Four Nations against the leading three nations.”
Several Scotland players will be involved in end of season games, with McCormack hoping they come through unscathed. Skipper Brough will be leading Huddersfield Giants in the Super League semi-finals and will be joined by club-mate Joe Wardle. In the Super 8 Qualifiers, Adam Walker (Hull KR), Liam Hood (Salford), Ben Kavanagh (on loan at Wakefield from Widnes), Danny Addy and Dale Ferguson (Bradford), Sam Barlow and Oli Wilkes (Leigh) and Sheffield Eagles’ captain Mitch Stringer are all in action.
In the Championship Shield, the likes of Workington Town quartet Alex Szostak, Brett Carter, Brett Phillips and Callum Phillips; London Broncos’ trio Oscar Thomas, Johnny Walker and Ben Hellewell, veteran prop Paul Jackson at Dewsbury Rams and Featherstone half-back Gareth Moore are still involved on the domestic front.
“No doubt one or two lads will be injured come the end of the season but that is something we have always expected and coped with before,” acknowledged McCormack. “It just gives an opportunity to someone else and that’s how we’ve unearthed a lot of players over the last few campaigns.”