SCOTLAND will hand fresh opportunities to nine uncapped talents in South Africa this summer, as interim head coach Scott Johnson bids to uncover new depth in key positions.
He has lost three players to the British and Irish Lions tour, Richie Gray, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, and Edinburgh openside flanker Ross Rennie is one experienced Test performer out with injury. But Johnson has opted to leave behind experienced centres Nick de Luca and Max Evans, in an effort to take a closer look at Peter Horne, Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor.
Glasgow flanker Rob Harley, who made his Test debut at the end of last year’s tour, has also been left out as Johnson restores David Denton to a back row complement featuring Alasdair Strokosch on the blindside, John Barclay at openside, Kelly Brown covering all three positions, and No 8s Ryan Wilson and Johnnie Beattie. Denton has not yet returned to fitness with Edinburgh after serious injury but Johnson said he had the all clear to return next month and believes he is a player with unique skills for a Scot, but who needs to develop his understanding of the game, and Johnson wants that education to begin again as soon as possible.
The nine uncapped players are Glasgow sextet Peter Murchie, Alex Dunbar, Peter Horne, Tommy Seymour, Pat MacArthur and Tim Swinson, Edinburgh’s Greig Tonks and Stevie Lawrie and Duncan Taylor, the centre/wing from Saracens who made his Scotland A debut this season.
Johnson said: “We are two years out from a World Cup, we’ve lost guys to the Lions and we have kids that are performing really well but we’re not sure whether they can take the next step, so I thought this was an ideal opportunity to find out. It’s an important step for the growth and depth of this squad.
“We want people to stand up here and put pressure on so that we have competition for spots, and it’s not being done on a whim because we understand that these guys are capable and can deliver, because what we’re up against in this tournament is formidable opposition.”
Asked whether he would start every uncapped player across the three Test matches – Scotland play Samoa on 8 June and South Africa on 15 June, with a final match, possibly against Italy, on 22 June – Johnson replied: “There’s a bit of me that would like to make sure that we have a look at the people we’re brought, which was part of the reasoning for not taking Max and Nick.
“I know what those lads can do and I felt that if they were standing there and things were not going that great I’d put them in, but that’s not what it’s about. I need to find out about a couple of lads and be clear.”
In terms of who those players are, Johnson spoke about the uncapped players he had selected, but also relative newcomers such as Tom Heathcote, the Bath stand-off. He made his debut off the bench for Scotland against Tonga in November, and was to have been one of three stand-offs in the squad. But, when Duncan Weir was ruled out with a broken leg, Johnson decided to stick with Ruaridh Jackson and Heathcote to ensure they both have decent game-time.
Peter Horne is also in line to make the debut denied him at the start of the Six Nations when a broken thumb ruled out his appearance against England and, while he has been pushing himself into contention as a stand-off at Glasgow, he is likely to be given a run in the centre.
But asked whether he was likely to keep Horne with Alex Dunbar, another newcomer, and link successful Glasgow combinations, Johnson said that might not be the case.
“Part of touring with a squad like that is seeing how they fit in, their attitude,” he said. “I’ve been around boys who seem born to it, and are fearless in the international arena, and others that go into their shell. This tour is about knowing where people sit, and irrespective of where they come from, it will be about their performance and their personality.”
It will be intriguing to see how the older uncapped players meld into that with Edinburgh hooker Stevie Lawrie, at 29, set to become the oldest new cap for generations, while Glasgow lock Tim Swinson has earned an opportunity to put pressure on his team-mate Al Kellock and Tom Ryder – who was capped on the last tour but is now left behind – through his bullishness and consistency of performance for the Warriors this term.
Both are of an age and a mindset where making friends and merely experiencing a Test arena is no longer a goal, but to drive to the front of the queue for caps is, which Johnson hopes will increase the intensity in the squad and ensure there is no holiday feel to the trip.
Johnson added: “We’re about performing, but this tour is also about knowing the depth of our squad base. When you look at the squad we’ve picked, the people we’ve left at home and the guys with the Lions, if we get a good couple of players out of this, it extends our depth significantly. What we need is some quality players to step up here.
“This is ideal timing for us to find out. The results will be how they stand up – that will be the result for me.”
Jim Hamilton is lined up to play for the Barbarians against the Lions in Hong Kong on 1 June, and fly from there to meet the squad in South Africa, but Johnson revealed that he has had a minor operation and that, if more recovery time is required, he may miss the Baa-Baas Test to be fit for Scotland.
The coach added that he had also considered bringing more young players, such as Mark Bennett and Jonny Gray, on tour but decided instead to allow them to play with Scotland U20s in the World Junior Championships, which, in his new role as SRU Director of Rugby, he is as keen to see results in as full Test level.
FIVE TO WATCH
Scott Johnson will take nine uncapped players on tour to South Africa next month and has promised that he will give them and other inexperienced performers the chance to prove whether they have the talent to be part of Scotland’s push for the 2015 World Cup. Here, the interim coach gives his opinion on five key players who will be given their moment in the spotlight.
(21 years old, one cap)
“He showed allegiance to us at a young age and that was great for us. It’s a good tour for him now because we were thinking about three No 10s, but [injury to Duncan Weir] now gives him and Jacko [Ruaridh Jackson] the chance against good opposition, and we’re going to find out about Tom. But it won’t be the death-knell for Tom either, it’s an opportunity. He’s a young man with a good skill-set in a position that we’re not overly strong in in terms of depth.”
(23 years old, uncapped)
“People forget that we named Peter Horne in the first Test side against England and he got hurt and broke his thumb, and then Matty Scott played really well and he didn’t get another chance. That’s the way life is. He’s a brave kid.”
(26 years old, uncapped)
“Tim’s performance has been better than Tom’s [Ryder]. He’s abrasive and we like that. We need to find out if that can work at international level as well. I think he has done all the things right and has earned that spot.”
(23 years old, uncapped)
“I like his versatility. One of the issues we have is the bench in international rugby, and that plays a massive role in how you pick you side. He’s played 12, 13, 14 and 15 for Saracens, and that’s pretty good versatility, but we’re trying to find out now his best position and where he sits in international rugby.”
(29 years old, uncapped)
“What I like about Steve, and this maybe sounds silly to say, is there’s a man in there. He’s an impressive bloke. I like that quality, especially in that position. It’s not the most comfortable position to be playing your sport in, but he’s been impressive in his role at Edinburgh. There’s leadership in him, he’s put a lot of pressure on [Ross] Ford and this is a good opportunity to run him out and find out about him.”
For quadrangular tournament with South Africa, Samoa and Italy in June:
Alex Dunbar (Glasgow)
Tom Heathcote (Bath)
Peter Horne (Glasgow)
Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow)
Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh)
Sean Lamont (Glasgow)
Peter Murchie (Glasgow)
Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow)
Matt Scott (Edinburgh)
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow)
Duncan Taylor (Saracens)
Greig Tonks (Edinburgh)
Tim Visser (Edinburgh)
John Barclay (Glasgow)
Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier)
Kelly Brown (Saracens, capt)
Geoff Cross (Edinburgh)
David Denton (Edinburgh)
Alasdair Dickinson (Sale)
Ross Ford (Edinburgh)
Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh)
Ryan Grant (Glasgow)
Jim Hamilton (Gloucester)
Alastair Kellock (Glasgow)
Steven Lawrie (Edinburgh)
Moray Low (Glasgow)
Pat MacArthur (Glasgow)
Euan Murray (Worcester)
Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan)
Tim Swinson (Glasgow)
Ryan Wilson (Warriors)
Sat 8 June v Samoa (King’s Park, Durban) 1.15pm BST
Sat 15 June v South Africa
(Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit), 4.15pm BST
Sat 22 June match to determine final placings (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria) either 1.15 or 4.15pm BST