SCOTT Johnson’s ideal is to have genuine competition for every department of his team in the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and one area in which he is sure to get his wish is the second row.
Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray are the starting locks tomorrow, Jonny Gray is set to make his debut off the bench, and Al Kellock and man of the match Tim Swinson wore numbers four and five against Japan last week. Add in Grant Gilchrist, who won three caps last year and is certain to come into the reckoning again, and it becomes clear just how tough the competition will be.
Hamilton, who will earn his 49th cap against South Africa, celebrates his 31st birthday tomorrow. He will easily be young enough and fit enough to play up to and beyond the World Cup, but to be included in the squad he may have to persuade Johnson that he has qualities that no other Scottish lock can match.
With Kellock just as capable of calling the lineouts and a more reliable leader, Hamilton may well need to perform not only today, but also in a few more Tests this season and next, if he is to make the cut. It’s a challenge, all right, but one he welcomes, as he shows when asked if the competition is as strong as he has known it.
“Yes, it definitely is,” he replies. “As a squad we’re well aware of that. They have a long-term plan for the World Cup, and hopefully we’re going to be competitive in the Six Nations, and we need a squad where we have players being picked on form, not just on a name.
“Jonny Gray and Tim Swinson have been fantastic. I’ve watched their progress for a couple of years. The way Swinno played at the weekend was fantastic.
“People say competition is great and it is. You get up in the morning and even if you feel a bit stiff you have these young lads on your heels so you want to go out there and get better. You want to keep the jersey. You don’t want to give it up.
“I’m not going to go on forever, but I want to see Scotland do well and be successful. To have young lads coming through you know you’re essentially leaving the team in a few years in a good place. It puts pressure on Richie and me at the weekend, and that’s the way it should be in any top international team.”
Sinbinned against South Africa in the summer for a push on Eben Etzebeth, Hamilton knows he will have to maintain his self-control tomorrow if Scotland are to have a real chance of winning. In that game in Nelspruit, the Springboks quickly found out how to profit from the big man’s absence, seizing possession from a lineout then going ahead for the first time in the contest thanks to a JJ Engelbrecht try. From that point on, when they were 13-17 down, the home team were on top, and ran out 30-17 winners after having looked in real trouble for some time.
Hamilton thinks that the key to avoiding any repetition of that indiscipline is to focus on his duties in the lineout. “I’ve called the lineouts for Scotland for as long as I’ve been in the team,” he says.
“It’s a job I’m used to, and people are surprised by that because normally the more physical of the two second rows just stands at the front of the lineout and goes around being physical.
“I do quite enjoy it, because sometimes when it gets a bit heated in games, having to call the lineouts and having such a big responsibility brings you into a level of control to do that.”
Etzebeth is on the bench tomorrow, as Bakkies Botha returns alongside Flip van der Merwe. For the veteran Botha, this is a first international since the 2011 World Cup. For the not-quite-veteran Hamilton, the hope is that this becomes the first of many internationals up to – and including – that tournament.
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