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Fife can cap his progress with debut for Scotland

Scott Johnson sometimes seemed to be handing out caps like confetti during his first year in the job, but the Scotland head coach yesterday revealed a rather more miserly side to his character as he named a 36-man Six Nations training squad which included just two individuals who have yet to play for their country.

 Dougie Fife is on the verge of making his Scotland debut but had not expected to be included as part of the the 36-man squad. Picture: SNS
Dougie Fife is on the verge of making his Scotland debut but had not expected to be included as part of the the 36-man squad. Picture: SNS

As one of them, Chris Fusaro, has come achingly close to being capped twice already, then the newcomer count comes down to one. But there is no doubting the potential of that individual for, in his past seven appearances for Edinburgh, Dougie Fife has delivered the almost Visser-esque total of five tries.

Fife, now 23, was a relative latecomer to the top-level rugby party, proving his worth at Currie before joining the full-time ranks. However, having been a rather peripheral figure at Edinburgh for his first two seasons with the club, he has unquestionably moved centre stage with his scoring exploits over the past two months.

"At the end of the day, skills transcend," said Johnson, who has clearly not lost his taste for an enigmatic soundbite. "He is not in there to pick up bags and he has not been brought in to make up numbers. He is there because I thought he was good enough to do it.

"He has been on our radar for some time. It is an area where we don't have a great deal of depth and he has got a lot of confidence, has been performing well against battle-hardened opposition and has stood up to that. There is no reason to think he can't stand up at the next level. He is a big, strong athletic kid, so there a few boxes ticked there. I quite like that."

A glance at Fife's cv reveals the sort of steady progression that, with hindsight, might suggest that he was always going to reach the point he got to yesterday. He had those early experiences as a ball boy at Murrayfield - he is vague on the details, but it was recent enough that he can remember Dan Parks being in the Scotland side - and then the rise through the Scottish age grade ranks before he represented Scotland 7s and Scotland A.

Yet even Fife seems surprised by how everything has come together this season. "It all kind of sneaked up on me quite quickly to be honest," he said with a smile. "I was just focused on Edinburgh and then all of a sudden people started talking about it. I honestly didn't even have it in the back of my head. I'm peaking at a good time I suppose."

Fife is, without doubt, an impressive all-round player. Built along modern lines - strapping but no freak - his solidity in defence is just as impressive as anything he delivers at the other end of the pitch. But in saluting his emergence as a player of real international class, it ought to be acknowledged that he owes something to those around him for unlocking that potential.

Which brings us to Greig Tonks. For it is impossible to overlook the fact that Fife has hit the fast-forward button, and Edinburgh have developed into a credible force again, only in the weeks since Tonks moved from full-back to fly-half and started pulling the strings for the capital side. Tonks is a long way from being the finished article as a playmaker just yet, but Johnson, a former Australia Under-21 fly-half himself, is clearly intrigued by what he has seen.

"I like the versatility," purred Johnson. "I do like that. It is a nice option to have and he has done really well at 10. He has shown great resolve defensively and is a smart rugby player, which is nice to have. I am quite pleased with that one.

"He is certainly making us question things and is putting pressure on the others. That is a good position to be in. The form of both Jacko [Ruaridh Jackson] and Duncan [Weir] has been good in aspects of their game, but it is consistency we are looking for. We talk about the consistency of performance we want within the squad but fly-half is a position that is probably a bit more important that way."

As unlikely as the transformation might sometimes seem in an age of increasing specialisation, it is worth recalling that Greig Laidlaw also made a successful transition to fly-half only a couple of seasons ago, and that his move away from the position came down only to the fact that he was, still, marginally better at scrum-half. Laidlaw himself has acknowledged that Tonks has made remarkable progress and it will be fascinating to see whether Johnson considers that the player's keen rugby intelligence and impressive all-round skill set can be taken to a higher level.

Asked about his general level of contentment right now, it was no great surprise that the Australian Johnson responded with a beaming reference to his countrymen's Ashes whitewash. When asked about the Scotland front row, however, his features darkened noticeably. "We are not enamoured with the front row and don't have the depth we would like to have," he said. "We don't have genuine competition."

The glib analysis of Johnson's Scotland right now is that the time for experimentation has given way to a time for consolidation. The coach has stressed repeatedly the importance of widening the pool of talent ahead of next year's World Cup, but he also knows there comes a point to settle on a core group.

"I wanted to see players and I wanted growth in the squad. I felt they had the ability to do that. We have capped quite a few over the past 12 months to get some mileage on the clock but we are now entering a tournament. I want an edge about the squad."

THE SCOTLAND SQUAD

Forwards

John Beattie (Montpellier), Kelly Brown (Saracens), Geoff Cross, David Denton, Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford (all Edinburgh), Chris Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Ryan Grant, Jonny Gray (both Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Castres), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Kieran Low (London Irish), Moray Low, Pat MacArthur (both Glasgow Warriors), Ross Rennie (Edinburgh) Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Tim Swinson, Ryan Wilson (both Glasgow Warriors)

Backs

Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Max Evans (Castres), Dougie Fife (Edinburgh), Stuart Hogg, Ruaridh Jackson, Sean Lamont (all Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh), Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Greig Tonks (Edinburgh), Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors)

Not considered because of injury

Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors),

Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Visser (Edinburgh)

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