SCOTLAND’s interim head coach Scott Johnson knew that, no matter how much he swelled his training squad for the Autumn Test series, he would still be left with selection headaches. And so it has proved after just one game.
The 42-17 defeat of Japan left the squad in relatively good heart as they returned to Murrayfield on Monday, reflecting on six good tries.
But they were swiftly reminded by the coaches that their defensive performance was not of a standard that will allow them to entertain notions of beating South Africa on Sunday.
As they took to the Murrayfield back pitches yesterday, the news that Matt Scott is out of the remaining Tests with the Springboks and Australia, a reminder that tighthead prop Euan Murray is unavailable for the Sunday game due to his religious beliefs and the sight of more walking wounded in the dressing room will not have improved the mood.
The coach was already looking at promoting Jonny Gray to the bench. The young Glasgow lock was eagerly chasing his brother Richie’s path to the Test arena, even before Al Kellock suffered a concussion and the adrenaline of Tim Swinson’s man-of-the-match performance wore off, leaving him with a sore shoulder.
Swinson did more than enough to keep his place and if Johnson is true to his word about form being a key factor in selection, the Glasgow lock would be the No 1 choice for this weekend.
But it is not that easy. Swinson does not call lineouts and neither does Richie Gray, so it is likely that the line-up looked at in pre-autumn Test planning meetings was the elder Gray and Jim Hamilton, who does call lineouts. That represents a good blend of power, physicality and athleticism, ideal to face the Boks. So it may be that Swinson’s shoulder knock helps Johnson out of a selection quandary because he and Hamilton would be too alike to start together if he was minded to reward form.
There is also a lesson for every aspiring second row, one that the younger Gray took on board some time ago. Although a somewhat reticent character, he urged his coaches to allow him to learn lineout calling as a Scotland age-grade player and is becoming more astute in what is a crucial but under-rated aspect of the game.
And that is not the only area which will have brought some angst to Johnson and assistants Matt Taylor, Jonathan Humphreys, Massimo Cuttitta and Duncan Hodge over the last few days. The management were planning changes in the midfield but they were unlikely to have involved taking Scott out of the starting line-up.
Even with Alex Dunbar injured, potential outside centres are queuing up. From Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and now McGuigan, the promising newcomers, to the (relative) elder statesmen Nick de Luca, Max Evans and Sean Lamont. Experienced inside centres are less obvious. De Luca, Bennett and Taylor have had stints there for their clubs, as has stand-off Ruaridh Jackson.
Bennett was in the frame for a squad call-up but, with Scott suddenly out of the equation, and up against a powerful, full-strength side ranked No 2 in the world, bold decisions on testing raw kids appear more risky. Evans’ fitness, after a recent injury, remains unclear and, although Johnson wants to see him in action, the fact that two capped wingers were yesterday called into the squad, in the shape of Jones and Brown, hints at Lamont shifting back to the No 13 jersey with De Luca in pole position to partner him from the start. Bennett, Taylor and Evans all present versatile back-line cover so at least two are expected to be in the 23.
The back row poses another intriguing question with John Barclay pushing hard for the openside flanker berth, while Glasgow’s out-and-out No 7 Chris Fusaro fits into Johnson’s category of “players we need to find out about”. Kelly Brown could shift to six or No 8, as could David Denton, but, against South Africa, perhaps Alasdair Strokosch would be best in the No.6 jersey. But that unit would lack flair and if this series is, as Johnson says, about finding out what other players can bring to the party, Johnnie Beattie, Rob Harley and newcomers Blair Cowan and Kieran Low could feature at some stage in the next fortnight.
Loosehead prop Ryan Grant warmed up with the squad yesterday after he passed early concussion return-to-play tests, but with Murray missing the front row strength in depth will be tested. Geoff Cross and Jon Welsh are both looking for a step-up with Dickinson ready to step in if Grant does not make it, while at scrum-half Henry Pyrgos and Chris Cusiter are increasing pressure on the selectors with Greig Laidlaw nursing a calf injury.
Only a small number of changes were expected for an opposition as strong and experienced as Sunday’s but injury and form have already forced Johnson to rethink the strategy for his first and last Autumn Test series as head coach.
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