THE week began with Scotland bemoaning the loss of one of their “finds” of 2013, Matt Scott, but could finish with another young talent, Duncan Taylor, grasping the opportunity to prove he has a place in Scotland’s future.
That certainly is the hope of Scotland coaches who are acutely aware of the fact that they are taking a gamble in potentially passing up another historic win over South Africa on Sunday that could do wonders for the morale of the squad and nation, in favour of finding out whether more fringe players can compete at the highest level.
Scott Johnson, the interim head coach, would not countenance the suggestion of “risks” or “gambles” for the obvious fear of that being taken to suggest he lacked faith in the players chosen but the truth is that he does not really know whether a handful of players who have been pushing their cases for Scotland selection and some who have won a number of caps without shining, really can be part of what he hopes will be a Scotland World Cup squad capable of at least reaching the quarter-finals.
He has hinted before now that he reckons some players who have been picking up caps in the last few years have had their day and need to be moved on to make way for younger, potentially better talents, but he needs both camps to have their opportunity to prove him right or wrong.
The Six Nations was very much about righting the ship with the strongest team possible after Andy Robinson’s resignation and the summer tour turned into something akin to a development trip with so many players injured and unavailable, and falling by the wayside once in South Africa.
So, this is the testing chamber, and the opposition is almost irrelevant.
Scott has shown that he is a man for the future, so losing him to a fractured hand is undoubtedly a blow but it does hand the athletic Taylor the chance to step up in the fiercest of environments. He is another product of the SRU’s scouting network south of the border and, while he has turned out on the wing and at full-back in his four appearances off the bench so far for Scotland, in handing him a first Test start at centre Johnson revealed that his future could lie in the No 12 jersey.
He said: “We spoke to Saracens and they see him as a No 12. He’s played every position in the back-line and we’re not sure yet at this level but he has that versatility so we want to look at him.
“We have a pretty good player in Matty at twelve but we want pressure for that spot and it’s an opportunity to see if Duncan can transfer his Premiership form to international level. We are down to the wire with injuries but I was keen to see him in that position. It gives him a great opportunity and once again it increases our depth. He shows all the physical prowess and skills to suggest he can.”
In the six changes made to the side, four are in the front five with only Ross Ford keeping his place, and that is where Scotland’s hopes of pulling off a shock win on Sunday will begin and end. Intriguingly, the return of Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton with Jonny Gray on the bench merely highlights the new quality being developed in the second row, while the front row is at the other end of the spectrum with the focus being on testing two props, Alasdair Dickinson and Moray Low, who have been here before and have not been able to fully convince their chiefs. Ryan Grant and Geoff Cross are among an experienced bench line-up, primed for second-half impact.
As if to underline the focus on this side at this time, and the testing process he is leading, Johnson waved away a question about how much he might take from the last Test match between Scotland and South Africa, where his team had their hosts on the rack for the first 50 minutes. “That’s about as relevant now as Mars,” he said, in his customary fashion. “They’re a different team and they have improved in the championship, but we are a different team as well. The game showed we had the ability to stand up to them in areas that people thought were not our strengths, and so there’s a bit of belief we can do that, but these games are far removed from each other.”
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