SCOTLAND coach Scott Johnson welcomed the selection of prop Ryan Grant for the British and Irish Lions as sending a strong message to his squad to believe in themselves.
They head back into battle this afternoon, for the first time since the third-placed finish to the RBS Six Nations, against a Samoan team that is building for the future but remains determined to turn 19-16 and 17-16 defeats by Scotland in their last two meetings into a first-ever victory.
If Scotland wish to feature in the final of this quadrangular Castle Lager Series on 22 June, they need a good start today and for Johnson much of that will come down to belief, which he feels will have been boosted by the addition of a fourth Scot to the Lions ranks.
“It sends a good message out to the squad about how good they are and how close to such a call they are,” he said. “We are delighted for Ryan and he goes to Australia with heaps of best wishes because it is a wonderful achievement. It is a lifetime achievement and his form has warranted it. We are just delighted, and then we just get on with it. It gives someone else an opportunity – Alasdair Dickinson now has a great opportunity to show us what he can do. But, as I said to Ryan when I told him [of his call-up], he has a great opportunity now to carry the banner for us. It happens to all coaches – it certainly happened to me when I got here – that you get pleasantly surprised by people that you don’t really know.
“He is walking into a new environment now. We know how good Ryan is and we know his capabilities but it is now to him to present them in a way that is good for Scotland. He is a wonderfully gifted rugby player and they may be pleasantly surprised at what they have got, and that is a nice thing for Scotland.”
This time last year Scotland forged their way up the rankings with victories over Australia, Fiji and Samoa on their tour of Oceania and a win today would effect another climb to eighth. That tour was Johnson’s first involvement with Scotland and despite the delight of a last-minute victory in Apia, or perhaps because of it, Johnson is wary of the Samoan threat today.
“They were hard to gauge because you are never entirely sure who will play or how strong they’ll be,” he said, “but the fact is that we always thought one thing was certain – it would be physical and it would be confrontational. All those boxes were ticked and we are not disappointed or surprised by anything that has been announced [in this week’s team]. We knew that they [France and England-based players] would come and the artillery has arrived and it is potent and now, playing at sea level, they are a different beast as well. I am under no illusions about what we think is coming at us but the beauty is that we will be coming in the same way. It will be a good intent from our perspective as well, so it will be a good Test match.”
Samoa have a strong spine of quality players from Paul Williams and Jonny Leota in the midfield against Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott, Alesana Tuilagi up against Sean Lamont, veteran Ofisa Treviranus alongside up-and-coming young Highlanders star Jack Lam, Daniel Leo in the second row with Teo Paulo and Census Johnston anchoring a front row of big men.
Scotland will miss Grant, but with Euan Murray a potent presence at tighthead, Dickinson has the opportunity to re-ignite his Test career in the stiffest of environments – he gives up three stones in weight to Samoa tighthead Census Johnston.
Hooker Pat MacArthur makes his Test debut, so that new front row make-up undoubtedly hangs question-marks over Scotland’s ability in the scrum, but the trio are determined characters and will be vital to giving Scotland hope today, with Grant Gilchrist and Al Kellock needing to provide ballast in the scrum as well as accuracy in the lineout.
If they can secure good ball, the battle of the fly-halves will be the determining factor and again Scotland have a blend of the tried and untested with Greig Laidlaw alongside Tom Heathcote. The young Inverness-born fly-half has great skills, but what his side needs today is a solid display.
This Samoan team have only just come together and while if the game is ragged it will play perfectly into their hands, if Scotland grip the game with simple rugby, win ball, retain it and play in the Samoan half, so exerting control, Samoa will struggle. But, for all the obvious interest in how the uncapped trio of Dunbar, Greig Tonks and MacArthur, first starter Heathcote and other new faces perform, one experienced campaigner, Al Kellock, insisted that he was not looking to the future.
“It’s always about winning,” he said, “because you don’t know if you’ll play again. I want to keep pushing and keep playing and I feel my form at Glasgow has been good this year and have enjoyed the new stuff from Gregor [Townsend] and Matt [Taylor]. Defensively, I have had my best season and that is working with Matt who wants me making low tackles which suits my game and playing for Scotland now is my reward. But you don’t know how long you’ve got and winning in South Africa would be a great achievement.”
SCOTLAND: 15 Greig Tonks, 14 Sean Lamont, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Tom Heathcote, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 1 Alasdair Dickinson, 2 Pat McArthur, 3 Euan Murray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 5 Al Kellock, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown (captain). Subs: 16 Stevie Lawrie, 17 Moray Low, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Duncan Taylor
SAMOA: 15 James Sooialo, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Paul Williams (captain), 12 Jonny Leota, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Tusiata Pisi, 9 Jeremy Sua, 1 Logovii Mulipola, 2 Wayne Ole Avei, 3 Census Johnston, 4 Teofilo Paulo, 5 Daniel Leo, 6 Ofisa Treviranus, 8 Taiasina Tuifua, 7 Jack Lam. Subs: 16 Maatulimanu Leiataus, 17 Sakaria Taulafo, 18 James Johnston, 19 Faatiga Lemalu, 20 Junior Poluleuligaga, 21 Brando Vaaulu, 22 Seilala Mapusua, 23 Alafoti Faosiliva,