08 Feb LONG READ | Spotlight on centre
Midfield is arguably one of the most hotly-contested areas of the back division and, while Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones are the most recent to start, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and Duncan Taylor can also make justifiable claims to the two starting berths in Scotland’s line-up.
For commentators and supporters alike there are many more-than-satisfactory combinations that could take the field from that list, with the unenviable task for their selection ultimately resting with Head Coach Vern Cotter.
It is one, however, that he should be ready for, as this depth has been long in the making…
Many of us will recall the knee injury that Dunbar sustained on the eve of the 2015 Calcutta Cup clash.
He had started six on the bounce for his country up to then but the cruel blow ended his time in the tournament at the half way mark and, ultimately, his hopes of featuring in the Rugby World Cup.
The consequence was that 2015 became the year of Scott and Bennett – the pair made 18 starts out of a possible 28 and the latter was nominated for 2015 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year – and, to a lesser – all being still markedly significant – extent, Pete Horne and Richie Vernon (both currently injured), who started seven in midfield.
Fast forward one year to 2016 and it was Saracens’ Taylor – with stunning scores against Wales and France, a nomination for the RBS 6 Nations Player of Tournament award won by full-back Stuart Hogg, and English Premiership and European Champions Cup titles – suggested that a shift in the status quo could be in the offing.
The summer the heralded the time for Bennett to pursue his Olympic dream in Rio with Team GB.
That, combined with another layoff for the then seemingly luckless Dunbar, and an injury for man-in-possession Taylor, opened the door for another new contender.
Enter stage left Huw Jones. The somewhat unknown, Edinburgh-born quantity from Super Rugby side Stormers backed up his Tokyo debut with a sensational showing in the autumn – scoring three tries in two appearances and becoming the first Scot in history to register a brace against Australia.
The consequence of all this is that the stellar performances of Taylor and Jones in the number 13 jersey in the Six Nations and autumn tests bookended 2016’s competitive campaigns – an indication of how quickly and cruelly the selection spotlight can shift.
Of note to this conundrum is availability of a revitalised Matt Scott, who saw his seven starts in 2015 drop to three the following year when Taylor and Jones hogged the headlines.
After an autumnal absence, however, the former Currie star has staked his claim for his return with some impressive displays for new club Gloucester, running in 12 tries in 18 games from outside-centre.
This then bring us full circle to Dunbar.
He started every one of his 13 caps since his 2013 test debut against Italy in South Africa – scoring five tries – including a brace against Italy in Rome that saw him record one of the fastest monitored speeds of a Scotland player (21 mph).
An impressive feat with little more than 10 minutes left on the clock.
Injury has meant that he has started just eight of the past 25 Scotland tests, a small number maybe but also a testimony to his resilience and the regard in which he is held that he is back to his best after the long – and often bumpy – road to recovery, starting every game in the autumn and Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations victory over Ireland, combining with Jones to great effect and scoring a sixth try for his country.
It is a curious a fact – and an illustration of both his consistency and versatility that – despite his challenges in the past two years, he is the only centre to have played a test match with each of the others.
When available, he plays.
A classic example of a player who juxtaposes his battling performances with a quiet off-field temperament, Dunbar feels he has taken a lot from his absence.
“I think my injury lay-off changed and increased my focus on each game,” said Dunbar.
“At times I was going from game to game and maybe wasn’t really as focused as I should have been. I’m a lot more focussed and enjoying it a lot more now.
“I’m trying things in training and a lot of them are coming off.
“I started getting regular, senior game time in the past five or six years and the injury a couple of years ago made it difficult to continue my development but I’m over that now and am looking to keep moving forward and keep improving.”
Now Dunbar is back to his barnstorming best, equally adept as the battering ram and defensive wall as the man to catch defences off guard with his turn of pace.
In what is arguably a second ‘breakthrough’ year, he has played a key role in Glasgow Warriors’ journey to the knockout rounds of the Champions Cup for the first time in the club’s history.
It is timely, therefore, that the Scotland internationalist has put pen-to-paper on a new two-year deal, keeping him at Scotstoun until at least May 2019, which will extend his stay in Glasgow to 10 years, and where he’s certain to take his current 94 appearances past the century mark.
And he’s not alone.
Dunbar is the fifth player from the current Scotland squad to prolong his time with the Warriors – with Stuart Hogg, Henry Pyrgos, Tommy Seymour and Tim Swinson all extending their time in Glasgow this season – while new boy Jones confirmed just yesterday that he will link up Dunbar in Glasgow’s west after the coming Super Rugby season.
“Glasgow Warriors is a great club and I’m really enjoying my rugby just now. It was an easy decision when it came around,” added Dunbar.
“It was a great day down in Leicester [to secure a place in the knockout rounds at Welford Road]. With the smiles on the boys faces and the buzz around the club it’s been great over the last couple of months, so hopefully we can continue that going forward.”