Tim Swinson won the battle yesterday when he put in an eye-catching performance on his Murrayfield debut and was deservedly named man of the match, but the ambitious second row is already thinking about how to win the war too.
His challenge is to beat youngster Johnny Gray, veteran Al Kellock and man mountain Jim Hamilton to the prize of becoming Richie Gray’s regular partner in the Scotland boiler room ahead of the 2015 World Cup, and he certainly saw yesterday’s excellent win over Japan in that context.
“In the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking a lot about the lead-up to the World Cup,” he said. “There are six or seven second rows in contention so yesterday was all about nailing myself to the mast.”
He did that, and more. Against an obdurate and energetic Japanese opposition, the Glasgow lock laid out his credentials in front of the home crowd for the first time, building on the foundations laid in South Africa in the summer when he was named by the tour management as Scotland’s most improved player.
As Murrayfield debuts go, this one had everything but a try – and he almost got that too, being held up over the line on the hour. From start to finish the second row put in a performance of controlled and channelled aggression which marked him out as Scotland’s most potent forward.
In defence he was everywhere, his tackle stats matching that of a flanker. One hit in particular, deep inside Scotland’s 22 after just quarter of an hour, kept Scotland in front. It came when he put in a crunching tackle on Japan’s Craig Wing as the inside centre came in on the crash ball only to be stood up and smashed back by Swinson. You could almost hear the sound of the impact from the stand, while the effect of that tackle was palpable as Scotland cleared the ball upfield.
But it was in attack when the former Newcastle Falcon really came to the fore, with carry after carry through heavy traffic. He’s been similarly effective with Glasgow, and proved his appetite for the rough stuff against the Boks and Azzurri over the summer, but yesterday he was absolutely immense, displaying a relentless appetite for the physical side of the game, making over 30 carries and making ground virtually every time he touched the ball.
“He was absolutely superb,” said Scotland coach Scott Johnson afterwards. “He completely justified our faith in him. He supported the phases, played great rugby and really manned up. It’s not often that we [the Scotland coaching staff] agree with the man-of-the-match award, but with 15 minutes to go there was complete consensus on the shop floor on this one.”
Swinson was dismissive of his effort and said: “I just happened to be in the right positions to carry the ball, another week it’ll be someone else.” But he couldn’t disguise his pleasure at having enhanced his burgeoning reputation. “You’ve got to play to your strengths,” he says, “and while I’m a good lineout player, at 6ft 4in there will always be people who will view me as too short. That’s something I’ve worked against, and hopefully I’ve now proved that I’m not a circus act.”
Indeed, apart from the unwitting obstruction that saw a Sean Lamont try disallowed because Nick De Luca had run behind Swinson, it is impossible to fault his performance. He has surely played himself into the team to face South Africa next Sunday.
The same is probably true of the other player in the starting line-up making his Murrayfield debut, with Glasgow wing Tommy Seymour’s two tries making this a dream third cap. Like Swinson, who hails from England but qualifies via his maternal grandmother from Glasgow, Seymour also qualifies via his Glaswegian mother, but has an even more unusual back story after being born in Nashville, before living in Dubai and then being raised in Belfast.
Unlike Swinson, however, Seymour still has much to work on despite his brace of tries, the first of which saw him neatly beat a cover-tackler while the second was a walk-in. If ever there was a player destined to give a defence coach a heart attack, it’s the mercurial 25-year-old, whose failed attempted interception just before half-time almost gifted Japan a try and eventually led to their first points.