SCOTT Johnson has started to roll the dice in his post as Scotland’s interim head coach by taking a gamble on young stand-off Duncan Weir altering the team’s style but maintaining their winning run.
Scotland have never won three games in a row in the RBS Six Nations Championship but are preparing to welcome Wales to Murrayfield on Saturday with what, on paper at least, provides the best opportunity to change that particular statistic.
With Weir in for Ruaridh Jackson, tighthead prop Euan Murray returning for Geoff Cross and Ryan Wilson in for the injured David Denton on the bench, Johnson is confident he has a squad capable of beating the Welsh and maintaining Scotland’s rare winning streak after victories over Italy and Ireland.
The Australian coach came to Scotland from Wales with a reputation for thinking and acting differently to the norm and, after a quiet few months, showed the first real sign of that with his selection for Saturday’s penultimate Six Nations match against his former paymasters.
He had followed well-established protocol by resting players the weeked before Test matches but has cast that aside by replacing Jackson, who was rested, with Weir. The 21-year-old was released to Glasgow for their league match with Cardiff last Friday, and duly scored a try as well as making several goal-kicks, while club and country rival Jackson was watching on.
Both players believed Johnson was likely to continue with the established order but he took the gamble of letting Weir play against Cardiff and risk injury, largely to give him playing time after an injury-hit season in which Jackson has mostly worn Glasgow’s No 10 shirt.
Weir’s try-scoring display on Friday merely underlined for Johnson that now was the time to turn to the youngster’s skills.
Crucially, the choice will have surprised Wales, who would have been planning to challenge Jackson’s weaknesses and who now have to think about the reasons for Weir’s promotion.
Johnson said: “It was a close call. We said after the result against Italy it shouldn’t be seen just as a victory where we don’t look at our team and look at what we need to do better. We looked at the skill sets of the two boys [Jackson and Weir] and thought, okay, this might be an appropriate time to make a change for the game we’re playing and the opponent we’re playing. It’s reward for form and reward for his skill-set. It’s up to him to take that opportunity now.”
While Weir’s ability to attack the gain-line and to defend are crucial factors in his step-up after three runs off the bench. The key to Weir’s skill-set is the former Celtic youth footballer’s ability to kick long and accurately from hand.
Explaining why he released Weir to play last week, Johnson added: “One of the things was we didn’t want him to rest. We wanted him to keep playing and get confidence in what he’s doing, and I thought he played well the other night.
“But he provides us with something different. We’re not disappointed in Jacko. There’s areas of the game Jacko needs to work on, but we’re acknowledging we need to improve certain areas of our game. It’s a tough gig out there in that position. It’s a position that requires you to think like a man of action but act like a man of thought. It’s a difficult position to play, but this is about acknowledging where we are, and some of the issues in our game.
“We’ve had a lot of pressure on Greig [Laidlaw] and we’re trying to alleviate some of that. They [Wales] probably wouldn’t have predicted it and that’s not a bad thing, but I’m not so worried about Wales. I’m worried about trying to get us right. If I start worrying about what’s good or bad for Wales I’m in all sorts of trouble,” added Johnson
Weir impressed off the bench against Ireland in the crucial last quarter and, while he enjoyed ball and momentum in a way Jackson didn’t for large spells, Johnson is clearly keen to hand Weir the opportunity to develop that cameo role and increase the competition for a position that has hampered Scotland’s progress in recent seasons. He went on to talk about how no player had a divine right to play for Scotland and revealed that Jackson had handled his demotion well and resolved to work harder on areas of his game.
Johnson then spoke of the other change he has made to the side that hung in incredibly to claim victory over Ireland – tighthead prop. The scrum and lineout were two of the very few successes against the Irish but Euan Murray had been swiftly restored to the side after missing the Ireland match due to his religious beliefs, despite Johnson admitting that Geoff Cross had done everything asked of him.
The coach hinted that he was always minded to bring Murray back as a result of his display against Italy, but insisted that he did not tell Murray that.
He said: “I judge it on performance. There’s been no promises, pleas or anything prior to anyone.
“Geoff Cross played as well as we saw with the eye on the day as he did when we reviewed the footage. Fair play to him. He did really well. But, if you want to be fair, Geoff’s regional form [with Edinburgh] hasn’t been great, so we’re not about rewarding a one-off performance. We’re here to make sure people are performing all of the time. That’s what we want regionally and internationally.
“We have to acknowledge that two weeks prior [against Italy] Euan was nothing short of sensational as well. So it was difficult. We’re in a good position. There’s now pressure for the position. Euan’s got first right of reply.
“He is a quality player and we forget that, with all of the other issues and comments that everybody has about that [religious issue]. But underneath he’s a quality rugby player, a world-class tighthead. He provides us with an edge. He was actually one of the surprise packets when I first took on the Scotland job. I’d coached against him and never really appreciated how good a tighthead prop he was – one, in the set-piece and, two, around the park.”
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) 13 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
14 Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors) 3 caps, 1 try, 5 points
13 Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) 74 caps, 9 tries, 45 points
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) 10 caps, 1 try, 5 points
11 Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby) 8 caps, 5 tries, 25 points
10 Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) 3 caps, 1 conversion, 2 points
9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) vice-captain, 16 caps, 2 tries, 16 conversions and 30 penalties, 132 points
1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) vice-captain, 8 caps
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) 66 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
3 Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors) 51 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
4 Richie Gray (Sale Sharks) 30 caps, 1 try, 5 points
5 Jim Hamilton (Gloucester) 44 caps, 1 try, 5 points
6 Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors) 3 caps, 1 try, 5 points
7 Kelly Brown (Saracens) captain, 55 caps, 4 tries, 20 points
8 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) 19 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
16 Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors) 41 caps, 1 try, 5 points
17 Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) 17 caps
18 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby) 19 caps, 1 try, 5points
19 Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) 50 caps, 1 try, 5 points
20 Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
21 Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) 5 caps, 1 try, 5 points
22 Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) 18 caps, 2 conversions, 2 penalties, 2 drop-goals, 16 points
23 Max Evans (Castres) 34 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa).
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand) and Lourens Van Der Merwe (South Africa).
TMO: Giulio De Santis (Italy).