SCOTLAND coach Scott Johnson sparked bewilderment yesterday by leaving Kelly Brown out of his team for Sunday’s meeting with South Africa, less than a week after he captained the national side to victory over Japan in the opening autumn Test.
Johnson sought to explain that giving Brown a week off had always been part of his plan, another development that raised eyebrows – a Springboks Test is an unusual stage on which to rotate players or experiment in a bid to establish a first-choice XV.
In Johnson’s defence, the ‘dropping’ of players becomes a matter of semantics these days with players being rested so often and, in the case of the Australian’s temporary tenure as Scotland chief, coming in and out of the team in order for him to assess various combinations in what he views as a countdown period to the 2015 World Cup.
There is no such thing as a friendly in rugby, as outside the Six Nations Championship and World Cup every international game is effectively a friendly, but after making six changes to the team that defeated Japan 42-17, Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to use the autumn series to find out about more players.
So, out goes Brown, Scotland’s ‘Mr Consistency’, and back comes specialist openside flanker John Barclay, while David Denton and Alasdair Strokosch retain their positions in the back row. The fact that medics believe modern forwards can require up to ten days to fully recover from a match of Test intensity is also a factor, as Scotland face Australia in their final game of the year just six days after the Springboks depart. Brown will be back for that, but Greig Laidlaw takes over as skipper for this weekend’s clash.
Johnson stated that that was always his plan, but he had not wished to reveal that before this week. “I spoke to Kelly and said that we were going to try a few things,” the coach said, “but we didn’t want to go too early with the heads up for this week.
“We knew Kelly would get plenty of miles on the clock in the Japan game and didn’t want to go walking wounded into game three. It’s perfect for us to look at some combinations, give Kelly a week off and let Greig take the team.”
Brown may be Scotland’s most reliable performer but as skilful as he is, his talents give themselves more to the blindside and No 8 berths rather than an openside role that demands real speed, dexterity, groundwork and linking play. The team lacks a balance in the back row with Brown, Denton and Strokosch and while Johnson wanted to open the autumn with his preferred captain involved, he is now looking at his options.
“Kelly, by his own admission, would prefer to play No 6 [blindside flanker],” explained Johnson, “but he’s done a great job at No 7 because we lost [Ross] Rennie and had injuries to Barclay last year.
“I’m keen to see Johnny at seven and see how the combinations work. I want to see good balance in our pack and in our back division … and this is a good opportunity for players to showcase their abilities.”
He reiterated: “We are 22 months out from the World Cup and there’s going to be growth in this team – there has to be. After this series there are European campaigns, the Six Nations and the summer tour, as as preparation for the World Cup, and if we don’t know it now we could go into that competition not knowing where a few bumps and bruises would leave us as a squad. Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one is prepared to die. You need to do it some time and we are going to do it now.
“It’s a fine line between an edge and giving away a jersey, we know that, but if we can get 22 months down the line and have 22 guys fighting for 11 or 12 places, Scottish rugby will be in a pretty good place.”
Elsewhere there is a return for second rows Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton, both now playing with French clubs, and no place for last weekend’s man-of-the-match Tim Swinson, with Gray’s 19-year-old brother Jonny called up for his first bench appearance.
Alasdair Dickinson and Moray Low are the new props in place of Ryan Grant and Euan Murray, who does not play on Sundays, though Grant is recovering from concussion and named on the bench.
Saracens centre, Duncan Taylor, will start for Scotland as a direct replacement for the injured Matt Scott.