WHEN your club suffers a heavy defeat you often get little but criticism, but for Johnnie Beattie there was one big positive to emerge from Castres’ 19-47 loss to Harlequins on Saturday: a late call-up to the Scotland squad, from which he had been omitted only a few days earlier.
On announcing his initial list of 32 names for the RBS Six Nations Championship last week, Vern Cotter had said he would add another back-row player to his squad, but it was by no means certain that the player in question would be Beattie. By his own admission, the 29-year-old did not have an outstanding game against Harlequins, but he has fought hard to maintain his own standards during a difficult season for Castres, and is glad to have been given a chance to fight for his place in the national team.
“I’m just delighted to be here and given a shot, delighted to still be involved,” Beattie said yesterday.
“You have an audition every week, it’s part and parcel of being a professional player. It’s like doing a job application in public every week, and seeing if someone wants to employ you. It’s just in a very public forum.
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“It was hard,” he continued when asked about the match, a sixth defeat from six Champions Cup pool games for Castres, who are also second bottom in the French league. “It was not a great performance by us, by me – I wasn’t extraordinary by any means. Obviously I endeavoured enough and did enough to earn the phone call.
“It’s been tricky for the [Castres] players, but also the coaches: they know that there’s people lined up to replace them already at the end of the year, so they know their jobs aren’t there. Tricky for everybody, but we need to get together and work.
“It’s a different culture and it’s been a test for Richie [Gray] and I to bring everyone together and say, `If we work our way out of this we can fight our way out’. It works with some but not with others.
“It’s good to get away and coming here seeing friendly faces and a change of environment. For us going back we’ve got a game at home this week to Toulouse, which could make or break our season. We’re currently 13th out of 14 and things need to change.”
Long before his omission last week, Beattie knew he had a big fight on his hands to claim a place in the Scotland team either for the Six Nations or for the World Cup later this year. It is a fight that will get.all the harder later in the year when Glasgow forward Josh Strauss becomes eligible for Scotland, while as things stand Beattie appears sure that Edinburgh back-row David Denton is Cotton’s first choice as No 8.
“The World Cup is a personal target, but this year is going to be harder than the last two to get in, I think. You’ve got Adam Ashe coming back from injury, you have Dents, Josh Strauss coming to qualify, so that’s three top-drawer No 8s already. I have to stick my hand in and challenge as a 6/8. It’s a personal target, it always has been, but I understand it’ll be hard this year and I have to fight my way through.
“They want Dents, tight, playing off nine. Maybe I’d been a bit loose playing with Castres, playing off 10 or 12. I tried to tighten up a bit, play a bit differently against Quins, although it was pretty tricky circumstances.
“I think I did enough to get the call. If I get the chance I plan to show how well I can do playing in the Scotland side.”
Given they play in France, Beattie and Gray should have a better idea than home-based players about what to expect in Scotland’s opening Six Nations match, at the Stade de France a week on Saturday.
For Beattie, there is some truth in the stereotypical notion that you should expect the unexpected from the French team, but he believes that the key to succeeding against them is to pressurise them rather than merely waiting to find out how they plan to play.
“They’re so up and down. When I arrived at Montpellier [where he played from 2012 until last year] they were taking the piss saying ‘Looking forward to the Wooden Spoon?’ and then it was actually them that ended up with it that year.
“They’re so up and down and they have a different set-up in backroom staff.
“They were stale last year and have freshened up massively. Always with them you never know what you’re going to get. It’ll be a huge game for us and a scalp we could take in the first game, going there. If we get everything right, and everything clicks for us, and we put them under pressure . . . .
“They always struggle with Argentina and I asked them why, and they say it’s something to do with Latin temperament. They played well against Fiji and Australia [in the autumn]. If you let them play they can be a frightening prospect, but if you put pressure on them they can get a bit flaky.”
While Beattie came into the squad, a number of players had to sit out training yesterday because of injury, but are expected to resume later this week after further assessment and treatment: Denton (calf), Alex Dunbar and Greig Tonks (both concussion), Dougie Fife (leg), Rob Harley (knee and ankle), Sean Maitland, Matt Scott and Alasdair Strokosch (all shoulder), and Ben Toolis (back).