SCOTT Johnson said yesterday that he would have no qualms about handing Edinburgh winger Dougie Fife his international debut against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday in Scotland’s final Six Nations match of 2014.
The 23-year-old has come into the reckoning after doubts emerged over the fitness of both Tommy Seymour and Max Evans. The pair have joined a growing list of injured wingers that includes Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Sean Lamont.
Seymour and Evans were still being given time yesterday to recover from calf and back injuries respectively, and so interim head coach Johnson named a pool of 14 backs from which he will finalise the starting seven and three replacements today.
Half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Duncan Weir, centres Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar, and full-back Stuart Hogg are all expected to line up at the Millennium Stadium, although Johnson hinted that one of them was also nursing a minor injury from the weekend. But several permutations were being tossed around last night as Johnson weighed up the medical opinion on Evans and Seymour.
With Lamont being injured, Fife’s form at Edinburgh had already pushed him into the reckoning. Jack Cuthbert, who won his sole cap in the 2011 World Cup warm-up match against Ireland, has similarly impressed Johnson and backs coach Duncan Hodge with his performances for the capital club this season.
Johnson said: “We will wait until tomorrow to give guys a chance to see how they pull up.
“There are three in the back division causing grief, but Tommy and Max are the major ones. Both are not great and have been hampered. The second session this afternoon should be a determining factor.
“You want to give them the opportunity at this stage in the tournament to get over the line, but we won’t go ridiculously late. These things happen. It’s life and it’s part of the development of this team.”
Asked whether he would be happy throwing Fife and Cuthbert in, he said: “I wouldn’t blink an eyelid. I’ve got form to show that I wouldn’t blink an eyelid.
“This is what we need to do as a country. When the opportunity arises we have to do that and I’m comfortable with both of those players. They have shown glimpses of really good regional form so let’s get out there and show the world you can do it. No problem.”
There were an additional couple of names training yesterday in the shape of Lee Jones, the former Selkirk and Edinburgh winger currently on loan at Glasgow, and the flanker-turned-centre Richie Vernon. Both appear to be in the mix for bench spots if Seymour and Evans are ruled out, Johnson knowing that Jones can cope at Test level after his introduction in 2012 and admitting that Vernon’s form in his first four games at centre for Glasgow after a mid-season switch had opened eyes.
“He has surprised a lot of people,” said the coach. “He is a work in progress but he’s further down the track than everyone thought or anticipated. It just goes to show he probably played like that as a back-rower!
“We wanted to have a look at him to balance things off. On the bench you look at all permutations and he might come on the road sooner rather than later. You look at the bench slightly different to the starting team so we’re just waiting to see how they go and which blends we go with.”
Johnson ruled out deploying Duncan Taylor on the wing, preferring the versatile Saracens back as a replacement covering as many as four positions, and he reported that prop Ryan Grant had recovered well from his hip/abdomen injury to resume in the pack.
As expected, Ryan Wilson coming in for the injured Johnnie Beattie is the only change to the eight that started against France, which means Geoff Cross holds on to the No 3 jersey, significantly for the first time in his career with the more experienced Euan Murray fit and available again on the bench.
Alasdair Dickinson is back on the bench for Moray Low, having recovered from the calf injury he suffered against Italy, and there is a return for flanker Alasdair Strokosch, squeezed out at the start of the championship but delighted with the opportunity presented by Beattie’s injury.
Johnson praised his demeanour as part of the squad throughout, stating: “His behaviour has been impeccable and we want an impeccable performance from him if he gets on.”
That is part of the new strength in depth Johnson has striven to cultivate in his year-plus in charge in the national squad. Some changes have been injury-enforced, others deliberate moves to blood young talent, but it is fitting that his last game as Scotland’s head coach before Vern Cotter arrives looks likely to expose more newcomers to the Test arena, even if the call has come a little later than was planned.
“It’s the reality of the life and it gives others time in the saddle,” he said. “Consistency in combinations is nice, certainly, but it’s nice to know the capability of others too. Most of these players have been with us through the tournament and if you’re in this squad you’re expected to lace up your boots at any time.
“We’re business as usual, players know the call will be made and then you switch on. They’re out there training. Get on with it. It’s reality and opportunity. I’m a guy who sees the glass half-full rather than half-empty. Is it perfect? No. But sometimes imperfection isn’t bad either.
“Let’s find out about what people do. We’ll find out about characters. Who needs a bit of time, who doesn’t, who can do things? It will be good.”
SCOTLAND TEAM v Wales (Saturday, 2:45pm)
Backs TBC (from Cusiter, Cuthbert, Dunbar, Evans, Fife, Hogg, Jackson, Jones, Laidlaw, Scott, Taylor, Vernon, and Weir); Grant, Lawson, Cross, R Gray, Hamilton, Wilson, Brown (capt), Denton. Subs: Ford, Dickinson, Murray, Swinson, Strokosch, AN Other, AN Other, AN Other.