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Selection policy has been right, says Hall

A decade after making his Test debut, and so the longest- serving member of this Scotland squad, Dougie Hall was delighted by the suggestion yesterday that, unlikely as that record might make it, his selection reflected a freshness in the selection process.

Hall: 'I think it's a strong message to everyone that we're going to pick on form and it's not just going to be the same old faces'
Hall: 'I think it's a strong message to everyone that we're going to pick on form and it's not just going to be the same old faces'

"That's lovely . . . if you could tell everyone you see that would be good," he said with a laugh, before continuing in more serious vein. "The freshness possibly comes from the coaching down. The selection policy this time has been right. It is Glasgow-heavy you could say but that's because we've been playing well. Where some of the other guys have come from, they've maybe not had as much success. That can all turn round and that's when they'll have to review it and, in an ideal world, Edinburgh's going brilliantly, Glasgow's going brilliantly and Gloucester and Sale are going brilliantly, but right now Glasgow are. I think if the message is sent out that if you're going well you're getting picked, that's only good for Scottish rugby."

Hall is intelligent enough to know those words could be painted as a condemnation of the previous management, which was not what he intended, but also sufficiently so to realise they mean what they say and can only be interpreted as speaking to a sense that many squad members feel they now have a fairer chance.

Seeking to place that in its proper context, he pointed out that all selection is deeply subjective, which explains his view that things have not been as they should be.

"In my opinion, it's not been because I would have been in every time, or at least there would have been a bit more diversity sometimes in the selection," he noted. "There were a lot of the same faces through Robbo's tenure as coach. It's his opinion and he's a very good coach. Did I agree with his selection? Obviously I didn't because I didn't get involved that much."

By definition there cannot be that much change in terms of the contenders for places in a Scotland squad just as, for all that the old-timers might claim otherwise, has always been the case.

Generating true competition for places, which every head coach espouses as a virtue, is all the more difficult, then, with such a tiny player pool, but Scott Johnson's first selection goes some way towards achieving it.

Six years after he was last selected ahead of Ross Ford, the British & Irish Lion who will be on the bench at Twickenham and Scott Lawson, who started against Tonga but was not in the 35-man squad for the Six Nations, Hall's view of what has happened reflected that.

"I think it's a strong message to everyone that we're going to pick on form and it's not just going to be the same old faces playing week-in, week-out and I think that's the backbone of international rugby," he said. "You need to know that you're under pressure to perform for your club and for your country and if you're not going to do that you're not going to get selected. It's a slightly different situation [in my case] because Fordy's not been able to play the last week, but on the whole that's what international rugby has to be about."

The true art of selection, where Johnson's predecessor Andy Robinson struggled, as opposed to coaching, at which the former head coach was reckoned to excel, is getting the chemistry right as the caretaker coach acknowledged in a variety of ways. "It's not so much the players . . . it's just getting the combinations that allow you to play the game you want to play," he explained.

In seeking to achieve that, an important change is the shift to scrum-half of Greig Laidlaw, captain of Edinburgh and along with Tim Visser one of only two of their starting XV to have been first-choice for this side since Matt Scott only kept his place after Peter Horne withdrew through injury.

"It's a balancing act. I looked at the team and looked at where we can take the team that may be a little different. When you look at it, Greig's skill-set is typically French. He can do the nine, 10, goal-kicking role. If we get that right that's a value added for us," Johnson enthused. "The kid likes nine, he wants to play nine, his history tells you he can play nine. He's a smart rugby player, he's clever, he's a good leader. All those qualities are great, so we're looking for him to value add and finishing the game in different positions and this is the start of a journey with that."

By contrast Al Kellock, captain of the Glasgow Warriors set-up whose overall consistency of recent seasons is reflected in the inclusion of 11 of their past and present players in the starting XV and 16 in the match 23 – with Dunc Weir, on the bench as a result of Scott's promotion, dropped yet again in favour of Jim Hamilton.

It would be easy to look at that decision in the context of Johnson's observations on Monday about preferring those who lead by example to those who do so more demonstratively since Kellock is the most overtly talkative leader in the squad, whether to colleagues or referees.

The benefit of the doubt leans towards accepting that the coaches want Kellock's competitive brain to be at its sharpest when that might be most vital, however, given Johnson's explanation of that decision.

"It's combinations and trying to get a blend in your forward pack with a view of how you're trying to finish the game, as well," he said. "So you're trying to cover contingencies and you're trying to cover how you want to start and use the skill-set of both players in the relevant positions in the squad. Without saying too much more, we're going into a pretty hostile environment, so it's probably best to start one [Hamilton] and bring the other one on [Kellock]."

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