THERE are implications in the composition of any touring squad, implications, and also players who may be thought unlucky to have been left out.
The decision to omit Max Evans and Nick De Luca is interesting. Scott Johnson made all the appropriate noises – we know what they can do, opportunity to give younger players a chance, may benefit from a summer off at their age and then preparing, fresh, for next season.
Nevertheless, both Evans and De Luca may have the sense of a door being gently closed against them, all the more so because Scotland will be touring without Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, two of their three most dangerous strike runners – something that might make their experience more necessary. Consequently, they know that they are going to have to play exceptionally well for their clubs in the autumn if they are going to resume their international career.
Rob Harley is the most obvious, and, I would say, least justified omission. He did pretty well when he came into the side after Alasdair Strokosch was injured against England. Johnson, however, obviously prefers Strokosch, because, no matter how well Harley played against Italy, Ireland and Wales, Strokosch was back in the team against France, as soon as he was deemed fit. Tough on Harley; tougher still, some say, that the other 6 jersey has gone to David Denton, who had a disappointing second season even before injury saw it come to a premature end.
Yet Denton has the ability to become a key part of the Scotland scrum for years. My own view is that he may be an 8, rather than a 6, and that he may become the best player we have had in that position since Simon Taylor was in his prime.
One assumes that the first-choice back-row, in the absence of the two No 7s, Ross Rennie and Chris Fusaro, both still injured, may be as it was against France: Kelly Brown, John Beattie and Strokosch, with the captain at 7, even though John Barclay has been playing very well in recent weeks. That might change, of course, if, as is possible, either Brown or Beattie gets a late call-up for the Lions, should any back-row players be injured in training, or indeed in the Lions first match against the Barbarians, a week before Scotland play Samoa in Durban.
Lee Jones has been unlucky in that, having proved himself international class in the 2012 Six Nations, his season has been disrupted by a succession of injuries; then, when he returned to fitness, he has found himself starved of opportunities as Edinburgh’s season disintegrated. Accordingly, he has had little chance to impress Johnson. But he is good enough to be back challenging, and it is undeniable that Tommy Seymour’s performances for Glasgow have seen him picked on merit. Which just goes to show that a wing is even more dependent than players in other positions on the ability of his team-mates to create opportunities for him to shine.
Some have expressed disappointment that Johnson didn’t select Mark Bennett. But he is surely right to have left him to play in the RWC under-20 World Cup and not to have deprived Sean Lineen of his most dangerous attacking mid-field back. The performance of the under-20s is very important. Lineen has been doing very well with them. He deserves to have all his eligible players available.
In any case, with Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne and Matt Scott in the South African party, the prospects for the Scottish mid-field look brighter than they have for a very long time. Add Bennett to the mix next season, and they look brighter still. Moreover, Sean Lamont has also been in excellent form and no longer looking a displaced winger when he wears the number 13 jersey.
If Ryan Grant was unlucky not to be selected for the Lions, his presence in South Africa is a boon. He is one of the few Scots whose name surely goes unquestioned on the team-sheet. There may be an interesting battle for the hooking position. Ross Ford has reigned unchallenged for a few seasons now, but his Edinburgh colleague, Steven Lawrie, and Glasgow’s dynamic Pat MacArthur are both surely nibbling at his heels.
This tour should be valuable. In one sense it is a bit odd. We know now that Johnson won’t be coaching the national team next season, but is about to become director of rugby, The SRU say they have “identified” his successor, but can’t name him yet.
Normally, this would mean that Johnson was a lame duck touring coach, with players aware that he won’t be picking the team for the autumn in internationals. Yet it doesn’t really feel like that, and it‘s hard to believe that he won‘t be saying more than a few words in his successor’s ear.