Italian job not enough for Scott Johnson

Alasdair Strokosch: led Scotland to an unlikely victory over Italy in Pretoria. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alasdair Strokosch: led Scotland to an unlikely victory over Italy in Pretoria. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Scotland interim head coach Scott Johnson was pleased to see his team end their tour of South Africa on a high, but acknowledged big strides still needed to be made.

Alasdair Strokosch’s converted try at the death saw the Scots snatch an unlikely 30-29 win over Italy in the quadrangular series third-place play-off match in Pretoria on Saturday, but the performance was not a patch on the one produced in last weekend’s 30-17 loss to South Africa.

“I’m not walking away from the fact that we have to improve areas of our game, and we can’t accept that as a standard,” Johnson said after the Italy match – and by all accounts the message was just as terse and even more blunt in the changing room.

“It has been a tough old tour with injuries and our depth has been tested,” he continued. “That is what we needed to do – test our depth – and this reign is going to continue a little longer because we want to make sure we have a competitive squad. It is a hard year, a long year, and you can take pride in the resolve of the boys to finish it off.”

Johnson had made it clear before arriving in South Africa that the tour was all about development and the aim had been to throw a few players into the international mix and see which ones floated and which sank. If he could come home with two or three nuggets, then it would be job done.

The “form and future” mantra, which had seen him through the RBS 6 Nations, was discarded in favour of 
exploring the depths of the Scottish rugby scene.

He cannot have imagined in advance, though, how deep he would have to go. Six players went home – five injured and Jim Hamilton for family reasons – while two more from the original selection failed to make it onto the plane out of Scotland and another two stayed with the tour but did not play again after suffering injuries.

No wonder Johnson believes the hardest-working members of the party were the medical staff, who also had to patch up the likes of Euan Murray and Johnnie Beattie to get them onto the field – Beattie was a doubt until seconds before Saturday’s match against the 
Azzurri kicked off.

The result was that he finished by capping Fraser Brown, who has never started a professional game, at hooker; with Strokosch at openside flanker – probably seventh choice in that role; with Greig Laidlaw having to revert to fly-half, a position he thought he had seen the last of, in two out of three games.

In the circumstances, to have come through and engineered a win over Italy, however fortunate it was, with Strokosch making it over the line in the 81st minute to present Laidlaw with the opportunity to snatch victory with the conversion, can be counted as an achievement.

Yet the doubts remain, not least in Johnson’s mind. He was as scathing about the displays against Samoa (27-17 opening loss) and Italy as he was delighted with the middle weekend’s showing against the Springboks, where the Scots demonstrated the quality they are capable of delivering.

“Winning is contagious, but we don’t want to be a team that has peaks and troughs,” he added. “We are trying to be a competitive team all the time. Yes, we beat Italy, but we set the bar the week before and want to be there, or thereabouts, all the time.”