GLASGOW and Edinburgh players are being invited to press their long-term claims for Scotland jerseys in the opening autumn Test match with Japan while experienced “exiles” are made to bide their time.
That is, perhaps, a simplistic take on the explanation from interim head coach Scott Johnson of his selection for Saturday’s match but his plan in picking 17 of a 23-man squad from the two Scottish professional teams is clear. British and Irish Lions lock Richie Gray is on the bench, Jim Hamilton is not in the 23, and neither are Johnnie Beattie and Max Evans, all of whom play in France.
Over 30,000 tickets have been sold for only the second Murrayfield Test match against the Brave Blossoms and first since the 1991 World Cup. The last meeting of the sides was a 2004 meeting at McDiarmid Park that ended in Scotland’s record win, 100-8. That game should not have been given Test status, after the Japanese corporations refused to release all the top players, but Johnson knows that this one is wholly different.
Japan are 15th in the world and closing the gap to ninth-placed Scotland each year, as part of a concerted government-backed bid to become one of the world’s top-eight nations by the time they have hosted the 2019 World Cup. For that reason, Johnson has resisted throwing in a handful of newcomers.
Captain Kelly Brown is one of six leading players back after missing the summer tour to South Africa (Brown was invalided out of it) through injury or rest. Sean Maitland, Nick De Luca, Ruaridh Jackson, Ryan Grant and Ross Ford all return but the selections of Tim Swinson, Al Kellock, Tommy Seymour and David Denton are rewards for both form and fitness.
Gray was back in France and came off the Castres bench at the weekend, while knocks kept Evans, Hamilton and Beattie out of Scotland training last week. If fit, they will come into consideration next week, as Johnson bids both to test fringe talents and find out which of the veterans may be on the way out.
“We don’t have control of our exiles and their workload,” Johnson said. “We had some bumps and bruises and we looked at some who couldn’t train so it was a case of ‘he’s ready to go now, so let’s do it’. The second row is a great example of a position where we have high hopes for the future with a good balance between young and old. Quality locks with potential and some with history. But we have three games and so this won’t be the only lock combination.”
Injuries to Alex Dunbar, Stuart Hogg, Peter Murchie, Peter Horne, Ryan Wilson and Ross Rennie have opened the door for others, and the fact that only Kellock and Hamilton are experienced lineout-callers has a bearing. Johnson is intrigued by the French penchant for schooling their scrum-halves in calling lineouts but is not about to ask Greig Laidlaw to add that to his workload quite yet.
The back row consists of Perpignan’s Alasdair Strokosch, the one starter who played at the weekend, Brown and David Denton.
Brown’s return as skipper was fully expected but the decision to pick him at openside flanker rather than the smaller, quicker uncapped Chris Fusaro against a Japan side very slick at the breakdown, may owe more to the heart than the head.
Johnson explained: “I was trying to be fair to Kelly in that he led the team so well last season and it was a chance to repay his form in the Six Nations. And loyalty goes both ways. You ask players for loyalty and you have to give it back a little, too.”
The team announcement was complicated further by Johnson not actually being there. He was forced to take a hastily arranged flight to London for a meeting of Six Nations coaches and match officials, and pitched up later in the day.
“It was one of those things that was always pencilled in and got more pressing as the weeks got closer, but why they do it now in the week before the Test match, I don’t know.
“The big thing was maybe the scrum and it probably needed to be said to clear up a couple things but the best part will be a follow-up after these games to see what happened because we’ve started it [new scrum law].”
Johnson is clear on the role of this autumn Test series in moulding a squad for the 2015 World Cup, however, and has told the players: “If you want to go on this journey, every time you put the jersey on make sure you perform.”
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