THE Scotland squad came together yesterday with head coach Scott Johnson’s first task being to re-focus minds away from Heineken Cup disappointments and on to a Six Nations Championship.
Only one of the squad that pitched up at the Heriot-Watt training camp has any European competition to look forward to after March, skipper Kelly Brown now familiar with knockout stages at Saracens. But as Johnson also starts to firm up the biggest challenge he faces, that of a team selection to take on Ireland in Dublin in just over two weeks’ time, so players like Greig Tonks are beginning to think of what might lie ahead.
The 24-year-old returned from Ireland on Sunday night battered and bruised from the six-try mauling Edinburgh faced at the hands of Munster. Criticism was ringing in his ears, from coaches who tore a strip off their players to the skipper Greig Laidlaw, who made it clear in the dressing room at Thomond Park that that performance was unacceptable. Tonks agreed wholeheartedly and insisted that no-one was attempting to put a gloss on the defeat. But he is also hoping to learn valuable lessons from Sunday’s display, notably from how Edinburgh let a promising comeback towards the end of the first half slip after the break, and how they allowed themselves to be so easily opened up in the second half.
Edinburgh are not in action again until February, so next on the horizon is an Ireland team with Munster players such as Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell probably at its core. Tonks said that it would not take long to begin the process of re-focusing. “You don’t want to dwell on a loss,” he said, “so it is good to get into a new environment with a fresh campaign, and the Six Nations ahead.
“It is always disappointing losing and by a large margin is worse. Munster, when they get a slight bit of ascendency, are very good at finishing off a game. They can exploit space on the field and we let them do that. We let them get in the ascendency and it was really disappointing conceding so many tries.
“Given that we pride ourselves on our defence we let ourselves down a bit in that area. But that was the Heineken Cup with Edinburgh. Scotland is different. It is a fresh start now.”
That may not apply to any player more than Tonks. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, he moved with his Ayrshire mother and English father to England at the age of two. He was educated at Nottingham High School, intriguingly back in the city where the Tonks family name first emerged around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD.
He played for Newark RFC in Nottinghamshire before signing for Leicester and going on to represent England at under-16s, under-18s and under-20s levels, touring Australia and playing in the IRB Junior World Championships in Japan where he helped an England squad featuring Ben Youngs, Charlie Sharples and Courtney Lawes to a 30-6 win over Scotland and eventual loss to an Aaron Cruden-inspired New Zealand in the final.
By then his versatility had seen him move from stand-off to full-back more often and when he moved from Leicester to Northampton in 2010 he made his first start, against Edinburgh, ironically, at full-back, and was signed for the Scottish side in 2012 primarily in that role.
However, when Alan Solomons asked him to step in at stand-off in December, when the club’s three main options were all out injured, Tonks was delighted. He has duly turned heads by doing what Scotland’s other stand-offs, Ruaridh Jackson and Duncan Weir at Glasgow, are still getting to grips with – carrying out the game-plan and leading the back line with a seemingly effortless calm.
That is a key trait for any stand-off, that ability to make the calls, deliver the kicks, the short passes, the long passes, to make tackles and take bruising hits as big forwards target you around the fringes and still find time and space to play and orchestrate. Jackson has been the most consistent performer this season so far and is maturing well – Weir’s cameo against Toulon highlighted how he is still a little behind – and so is expected to start Scotland’s campaign against Ireland in Dublin.
Johnson might think differently, but the expectation is that Tonks will be handed his chance on the bench, providing cover for full-back and stand-off, with a view to coming on at some stage at ten to begin to increase the pressure for the starting fly-half berth. There is little doubt that Tonks wants it.
“I would be up for it,” he said, with all the assured confidence of a natural fly-half. “I would love the opportunity to do it but it is not my decision. I would be happy to do it. Whether the powers that be think that I have [the ability] I have to find out.
“But I can play ten so I will play as well as I can and see what happens. As you say it was not expected a month ago, but I have quite a few games under my belt there now for Edinburgh and they have not been easy games at a low level [against Leinster, Glasgow, Perpignan and Munster]. I like to think I can compete at that level in that position.
“In fact, given how I have been playing at ten, and the fact that is what I have been working on and been comfortable with, I would be [more] comfortable going in [for Scotland] in that position.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE