SCOTT Johnson aims to develop a new half-back pairing with Scotland after deciding Greig Laidlaw’s future is probably best served back in his old No 9 jersey, but he is going into the RBS Six Nations Championship with a distinct Glasgow feel.
Scotland’s interim head coach has also taken time to study Johnnie Beattie, and decided he has to be part of the mix going forward, and while he would like to have a choice of openside flankers “in my pocket” he is prepared to mould a back row unit without one if he feels that provides the best chance of success in the Six Nations.
So Rob Harley is in the mix and Chris Fusaro not far away, while Kelly Brown, David Denton and Alasdair Strokosch are all still contenders for Calcutta Cup berths. But what was clear from Johnson, as he explained his first training squad selection and spoke of being in “a people business”, was that he believes success for Scotland will be determined as much by players’ desire and character as by their skills.
He has made calls already that show him to have some differing thoughts to the man he has replaced. Laidlaw, for example, is now among the scrum-halves, and likely to be first-choice, with Tom Heathcote and Ruaridh Jackson leading the fight for the stand-off berth and Duncan Weir pushing hard.
“I made a decision with Greig which I think is fair for him going forward, that he’s more now a nine/ten rather than a ten/nine,” said Johnson. “He gives you something that other nines don’t; he’s got drive, is competitive and has everything you want from a rugby player. Trying to find the best position for him is what we’re doing, and I think nine is probably the best fit for him.”
“I’ve been trying to get a gauge on Johnnie myself. I think everybody had views on him and I was trying to be as objective as I could. I thought his form was very good and he provides... something that we don’t have a lot of in Scotland. He’s got a wonderful skill-set and I think he’s done really well to go to a strong rugby team in France and compete, and dominate in his position.”
In terms of how he moulds a team for Twickenham in just over two weeks from now, and whether it is realistic to expect such a callow group to come together quickly, he concluded: “Expectations are other people’s expectations. There’s realities of where Scotland wants to get to and how they get there.
“We want to be a side that are there or thereabouts all the time. That’s what you want out of your national team. You’ve got to get some processes in place that allow you to do that. We can’t chase the end as a coach; I’ll chase the start, the process. Get the process right and we’re there or thereabouts and the victories will look after themselves. I can’t control it, so the expectation for me is no different to yours. I’m just going about it a different way.”
Clearly it is more of a Glasgow way than an Edinburgh one, judging by his Warrior-dominated squad. “I think big games are won on good defence,” he added. “We’ve got two pro teams defending slightly differently to each other and we’ve got to make sure that our defence is first class. Before we worry about anything else, we’ve got to be hard to score against. That’s one of the great things I’ve really enjoyed about Glasgow this year; they’re very hard to beat and I want Scotland to be hard to beat.”