WHEN Scotland take the field at King’s Park on South Africa’s east coast tomorrow, it will not only be the young, new caps breathing in the sea air and perhaps giving thanks for the opportunity to play international rugby.
Much of the focus this week has been on the uncapped trio of Pat MacArthur, Alex Dunbar and Greig Tonks, and stand-off Tom Heathcote, who makes his first Test start.
But, watching them from a distance, with a broad smile, has been Johnnie Beattie. At 27, the Glaswegian is enjoying a new lease of life. He left Glasgow last summer for Montpellier after losing the faith of then Warriors coach Sean Lineen and spending much of his time warming the bench. There was a similar lack of belief in him from Scotland coach Andy Robinson and, after enjoying a good run in the Scottish back row through 2010, where he picked up a Man of the Match award and scored a fine try in the Croke Park win over Ireland, the Test limelight moved off him in 2011-12.
Recalled by Scott Johnson in January, however, he started all of Scotland’s RBS Six Nations games and will join Alasdair Strokosch and Kelly Brown in the back row against Samoa tomorrow. Beattie said: “It is just so nice to be involved again. I remember this time last year I was sitting in Glasgow, pretty miserable because boys were going on tour and I wasn’t even making the initial 45-man squads never mind getting into the Scotland team. Now I’m here, things are a bit different and I’m getting the chance to play again and I’m loving every moment. Spending time with mates and pushing to train to play as hard as I can.”
There is a clear excitement about Beattie. His move to France has agreed with him and, as a player given to flashes of brilliance amid the odd mind wander, perhaps it has also helped him understand the need for consistency.
So, why does he think he is back in favour with Scotland?
“Changing coaches, changing my club and getting the chance to play rugby regularly again, and playing well is probably the answer. It is easier to play well when you are being given the chance to play games back to back, which wasn’t happening in the last couple of years, with club or country. Leaving Glasgow and getting the chance to play regularly at Montpellier has really brought my enjoyment back after a pretty torrid year.
“It’s just that really. I’m not a massively improved player, just a player again. I got very, very down at things not going well when I was in Scotland latterly, and I think you focus too hard then on everything, and try change things, to try to force things to change for the better.
“Once you leave, you realise that Scottish rugby is a very small bubble and, if things don’t go well for you in that bubble, there is a great big world out there you can experience and they [Scotland] might ask you back.
“That’s what I set out to do, to give it everything and try to enjoy the new lifestyle and rugby. I’ve done that at Montpellier and my form has improved, so I’ve been asked back to play for Scotland, which I’m absolutely delighted about.”
Beattie has always had his father, John, himself a Scotland back row of the 1980s, to lean on for advice.
When Beatte jnr was a young player, his father often said that he provided little advice as there was not much he knew about the modern game or being a professional, having played in the days of amateurism. But his words of wisdom are appreciated now.
“I remember my dad telling me that international rugby goes by quickly. You’re the new kid on the block for a bit and then, all of a sudden, it seems that you’re an old head, then you’re retired and it’s just a memory that you enjoy talking about.
“I can see that with young guys like Tom Heathcote coming in for his first start and so many uncapped boys so, now, as well as trying to play the best I can, I also try to make the experience enjoyable as it can be for these young guys.
“When I first came into the team there were guys like Jason White, Simon Taylor, Marcus di Rollo, Scott Murray, people I really looked up to and respected, and enjoyed working with.
“I now have to help them ensure that they slip into it and feel comfortable, and enjoy it, because, when players are comfortable in a squad, that’s when they tend to perform at their best, and the overriding aim of every Test match and every tour is to win.
“I definitely feel not only older but more experienced, from coming through injuries, from winning big games with Scotland, and losing games, and from different cultures, and you see now how that can all help not just you but the guys around you if you share it with them.”
Experience is often though to matter most on the field of play but, as Beattie talks about the difference in the camp under Johnson compared to Robinson’s regime, it is clear that his experience is as beneficial off the park. Beattie has always been a character who likes a laugh, but he has learned more about how to work that into a professional environment, and how it can help with consistency of performance, not least at a French club where players are notoriously driven hard in training.
“It is about the balance,” he said. “One of the best parts of guys like Scotty Murray and Marcus were the laughs you had away from the training pitch, and we’re having a bit of that here, but it’s part of trying to create a winning ethos within the squad.
“I’ve spoken to guys who have gone on tour and absolutely hated it, or been in a Six Nations squad and hated it, because they haven’t played or they have played well but, off the pitch, it’s been so intense that there has been no escape.
“That has been a big change under Scott [Johnson] to the Scotland camps I was in before. Away from the rugby it’s easier now to have fun. The camps a year and more ago were more intense and sometimes it was a struggle to enjoy being with other boys because you were so focused on the rugby side 24/7. It was a very, very intense atmosphere, whereas it’s slightly more relaxed away from the rugby now, and I’m enjoying the balance.
“But it’s exactly the same when you’re in rugby mode, studying games, stats, training and preparing on matchday. That has to be pretty intense because we’re operating at a high level of international sport and you can’t afford to leave any stone unturned if you want to compete, and compete regularly, with the best in the world.”
That is just as well as Beattie prepares to face a Samoa side radically changed from the one which lost 74-14 to Johannesburg’s MTN Lions on Saturday, but still carrying the humiliation and a desire to turn two recent last-gasp defeats to Scotland into a first victory.
“They can be absolutely frightening,” added Beattie, who, after this tomorrow’s game, will be just three caps from equalling his father’s tally.
“We all saw when they beat Wales at the Millennium Stadium last year the quality these guys possess. They grow up playing rugby on the beach and the skills they have are incredible. I play with a Samoan at Montpellier and the amount of mates he has is incredible, and when they all come together you should see the rugby skills they all have.
“I think this is the first summer tour in a long while where they’re getting all their players released and able to play, all the big guns involved, and so this will be more like the Samoa side we see at the World Cup and, if you don’t get your game right, they will become a frightening prospect.
“For me, it’s great to be be involved but now it’s about making the most of the chance by winning games.”
Williams confident of stronger showing
One of just three players to keep his place for tomorrow’s Test match in Durban, Samoa skipper Paul Williams has warned Scotland to expect a very different challenge to the one put up by the South Sea islanders against the Lions of Johannesburg last Saturday.
After that freakish 74-14 defeat, Williams, 30, who plays for Stade Francais while his brother Gavin is at Clermont Auvergne, has been joined by more overseas stars.
The tryscorers gaianst the Lions, Alesana Tuilagi, the Leicester wing, and back row Ofisa Treviranus are the others retained but while the team is far stronger it is still much-changed to that which claimed victory over Wales and narrowly lost in France.
Coach Stephen Betham has made nine changes to the side that went down 22-14 to the French in their last Test, retaining only stand-off Tusiata Pisi, centre Jonny Leota, No 8 Taiasina Tuifua, lock Treviranus, Teofilo Paulo and Toulouse tighthead prop Census Johnston.
Samoa have never beaten Scotland, losing seven of their eight meetings and drawing 15-15 at Murrayfield in 1995. But after losing 19-16 and 17-16 in the last two, Williams, the son of All Black Bryan Williams, believes this Test will again go down to the wire. He said: “We have had some really close games, so we are expecting another close tussle. They will have seen a number of holes from our last turnout that they will want to exploit but we actually had only 19 players fit and three of them arrived the day before, so we were up against it. “We see this as a big opportunity to try to right the disappointment of last year’s loss [to Scotland] at home. Right down to the dying moments we thought we might have had it but, to their credit, they kept working and were there at the end.”
Samoa and Scotland will meet in the 2015 World Cup but the Samoan skipper does not believe this game will matter to that outcome.
“We are introducing a number of new players and I am not so sure how relevant one win here would be to affecting the psychology of the World Cup. But certainly as far as our build up and the development of the players in our squad goes, we would like to be successful.
“We are ranked seventh in the world and it’s a great achievement but we look at the close losses as well and we are very disappointed with them. We would love to have rolled France in Paris after that Wales game. Now we are looking forward to these three challenges ahead. Certainly we want to win them.”
Samoa: James So’oialo, Alapati Leiua, Paul Williams (c), Jonny Leota, Alesana Tuilagi, Tusiata Pisi, Jeremy Sua, Taiasina Tuifua, Jack Lam, Ofisa Treviranus, Daniel Leo, Teofilo Paulo, Census Johnston, Wayne Ole Avei, Logovii Mulipola. Subs: Maatulimanu Leiataua, Sakaria Taulafo, James Johnston, Faatiga Lemalu, Junior Poluleuligaga, Brando Vaaulu, Seilala Mapusua, Alafoti Faosiliva.