SCOTLAND kicked off the 2013 autumn Test series with the right kind of result, but the performance left the door open to interim head coach Scott Johnson to continue with his plan to tinker with the squad.
The chirpy Australian admitted to varying emotions through Saturday’s 42-17 win over Japan, revealing that there was a bit of gloom pervading the coaching box when the men from the Far East scored twice in the second half to pull Scotland’s lead back to a solitary point. His assistant coach Matt Taylor was left fuming by basic errors in the defensive line, while set-piece specialist Massimo Cuttitta and forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys railed against the pack’s ability to concede ball.
Indeed, Johnson himself came close to emulating the old punches of his predecessor Andy Robinson on the glass walls surrounding them.
For Scotland to emerge from the first Test of the season with an eventually comprehensive six-try-to-two victory is not to be sniffed at – and you will spend a long time in the record books to track down a bare handful of them. But this Scottish squad has a good grasp of reality, and they did not need to be told that there remains a world of difference between an improving nation ranked 15th in the world and the next one Scotland hope to defeat, second ranked South Africa.
Johnson acknowledged: “There was more good than bad, and there are enough positives in that we finished off some good work. You play Test match footy and you get across the line as often as we did, and we could have got a few more, is a positive, and that was a good team we played against.
“But I don’t want to be a side that gives up the try-line easy. The two tries that they got featured defensive structural errors that disappointed us. Poor decisions. So, it was disappointing in that regard.
“The spirit and the way we came back straight away is actually frustrating. I have to try and see the bright side of that, but I just wish they would do it before they got the kick up the butt.”
So, a curate’s egg of a performance. One might be tempted to say “welcome to Scottish rugby, Scott” if that did not have a negative, even defeatist tone, which does not fit after a good, hard-earned victory that at the very least reaffirmed Scotland’s status as a top ten nation.
So, what changes is he contemplating now, as he bids to suggest his squad can compete with the top four nations? His thinking is shaped both by the desire to test the depths of his squad and the fact that Scotland face the Springboks on Sunday and will back that up with a final autumn Test against Australia just six days later.
Medics state that it now takes players’ bodies between five and ten days to recover fully from a Test match against leading nations, such is the physical impact of such encounters, and most of the squad were still carrying a colourful array of bruises yesterday.
If Matt Scott is ruled out – he is having a scan on a suspected fractured hand in Leeds today – any number of players could come into the team. Injury still keeps Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne and Stuart Hogg out of contention, but Johnson may bring Sean Lamont into the 13 position he has filled many times, and move Nick de Luca inside a place, leaving a vacancy on the wing.
An intriguing selection discussion is also likely to throw up the names Duncan Taylor, Max Evans and Mark Bennett. There may also be chat over the potential to shift Ruaridh Jackson to the 12 jersey outside Duncan Weir or Tom Heathcote, a role he has filled at Glasgow alongside Weir and Dan Parks, but that may be a step too far against this opposition at this time.
With prop Ryan Grant battling concussion, there could be openings for Alasdair Dickinson, Moray Low and/or Jon Welsh, while the second row is expected to alter irrespective of whether Al Kellock recovers from his concussion. The back row is also likely to change.
“I have thought about it clearly,” said the coach. “We drafted a plan through and knew that form may dictate a change, but we had guys pencilled in.
“I want to be right with the squad and we have a six-day turnover for Australia, so I have to manage this now, and there is no point having boys in the squad if I don’t see what they are like. I don’t want to be sitting in front of you guys saying we are leg-weary come the Australia game. So, I don’t want to deviate from that plan as otherwise you will never find out [about players]. I don’t want to run around in circles.”
He was happy to heap praise on the performance of Tim Swinson, awarded the “Man of the Match” by most journalists, to which Johnson said: “I don’t always agree with you guys, but on that one I did.” And when asked about Scott’s continuing development into a genuine Test danger he just held up his hands as if to say “I told you so”.
“It is well documented what I think the kid can be,” he said of the centre. “He is not there yet but he is going to be a special player.
“He has been banged up disappointingly… but it opens the door for somebody else probably. He is a special kid and a special player, and I think he can go further in the game than we are willing to admit. He is a wonderful athlete with good skills and good feet. A lot of boxes ticked there. I am glad he is playing for us and I will be incredibly glad in a couple of years’ time because I think the world will be talking about him.”
Showing that the trademark humour remains intact after Saturday’s rollercoaster ride, Johnson replied to a question on what difference a victory made to the preparations for the visit of the Springboks by saying: “It is a bit like coming in to a happy wife! That’s the difference. Coming home to a house that is pretty happy is a nice start.
“But it’s a very fine line. I have talked about performance, and although there was some of what we want there, the beauty of that victory for us was that there were plenty of things we need to work on, so as a coach you win win there.
“We have to be honest and accept there are some issues. If we do a couple of those things against the big boys next week then, phew, we’re in trouble. We had a couple of bumps and a couple of new combinations, so, yeah, there are things we have to work on, but the beauty of Test rugby and coaching is that there is nothing perfect. I haven’t had a perfect day at the office yet, which is good.”
That fits with the Robert Louis Stevenson quote favoured by Scots that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” Johnson remains hopeful that, for all the long-term planning, the journey his side are on might also see some short-term success over the next fortnight.
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