LONDON (Reuters) - Scotland’s top midfielder, Mark Bennett, may return from injury sooner than expected to face England in their opening Six Nations match, a much-needed boost with key figures struggling and a painful exit from the World Cup still fresh in the memory.
Speaking at the tournament’s opening on Wednesday, head coach Vern Cotter said Bennett, who was nominated as one of the breakthrough players in the 2015 World Cup, was recovering well from a shoulder injury picked up earlier this month, which initially was thought might rule him out of the opening rounds.
“He is progressing well and we should know next week,” Cotter said. “It is 50/50, I would say.”
Scotland’s other centre, Alex Dunbar, is also nursing a thigh strain sustained during a club match on Saturday, leaving the midfield an area England will look to exploit with the likes of the elusive Jonathan Joseph.
Scotland also have Matt Scott and Duncan Taylor in reserve, but in a nation of just over five million with only two professional teams, its pool of talent is not as deep as the reserves in other competing countries.
“Do Scotland have good strength in depth? No,” Cotter said. “We’ve got some good character and we’ve got some good individuals, but if we get banged up we know what that means.”
Graeme Morrison, a former Scotland centre who played in the side that last beat England in 2008, said having Bennett and Dunbar fit was central to his country’s chances of success.
“He (Bennett) is fairly pivotal,” Morrison said. “I think he would be first pick in the 13 role and he complements Alex Dunbar really well. Alex can make a few hard yards and Bennett can run off him really well.”
Scotland have won only three times in 16 encounters with England in the Six Nations, and all of those have been on home soil.
Their wooden spoon in last year’s competition was their fourth since the tournament was extended to include Italy in 2000. They have finished in the bottom two in eight of the last 10 tournaments.
An impressive performance in the World Cup put them within minutes of booking a spot in the semifinal. But going out the way they did - conceding a late penalty to Australia - will do nothing for their confidence of a team who seem to find new and inventive ways of becoming the gallant loser.
Captain Greig Laidlaw said his team did not deserve any particular respect for their performance in the World Cup.
“We had a fairly successful World Cup, but we understand we went out in the quarters alongside other teams in this competition, so we don’t deserve anything and going forward we will have to work for everything.”
Another problem for Scotland is the domestic form of club sides, especially Glasgow, where many of the Scotland team come from.
Glasgow’s players went into the World Cup having just been crowned champions of the Pro12 tournament played between clubs in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy. They currently lie seventh in this year’s tournament, with star flyhalf Finn Russell and fullback Stuart Hogg struggling for form.
But Cotter said this was not necessarily a bad thing.
“Some of the tougher times help forge your players and develop your players. You find out a bit more about yourself. If it’s easy all the time, it might not be beneficial for you.”
Reporting by John Geddie; Editing by Mark Heinrich