SCOTLAND head coach Scott Johnson insisted that he had to put rugby reasons before “human” reasons when he axed captain Kelly Brown from the squad for tomorrow’s Calcutta Cup match.
Johnson admitted that dropping his skipper was one of his toughest career decisions as a coach, while a dejected but typically dignified Brown said on his Twitter account last night: “Obviously gutted to be missing out on the Calcutta Cup on Saturday, but that’s sport. Really hope the lads will go well.”
Saracens back rower Brown was tipped to be dropped from the openside flanker role, a relatively new one for the Borderer, after Scotland’s failure to dominate the tackle area against Ireland in Sunday’s disappointing Six Nations Championship opener. There have been regular calls for Scotland to return to a specialist openside, a quicker, smaller player who could be more effective both in the tackle area and in linking between forwards and backs. Johnson has now paid heed by handing Glasgow Warriors youngster Chris Fusaro his international debut.
The captaincy switches to scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and, in other changes to the side which lost 28-6 in Dublin, Glasgow winger Tommy Seymour is preferred to Max Evans as replacement for the injured Sean Maitland and Matt Scott, the Edinburgh centre, returns to the starting line-up in place of Duncan Taylor after a 15-minute run-out as substitute last week which completed his return from injury.
Lock Richie Gray and hooker Pat MacArthur are replaced on the bench, by Gray’s younger brother Jonny and Scott Lawson respectively, while Taylor swaps with Scott on the bench. Johnson explained why he was sticking with the second rows and hooker Ross Ford, despite a disastrous lineout on Sunday, by pointing to his lack of options, but the issue of dropping his captain after just one game dominated the team announcement.
“There were two different parts to dropping Kelly,” explained Johnson. “There is the human part and the rugby part. We are in a people business and, sometimes, these are the ones that get you, particularly with Kelly who is a special human being, but I felt the balance could be improved with Chris coming in so it was the right decision for the team.
“We wanted Kelly to play the seven role because he did really well for us there last year, but we also asked him to work on a couple of areas of his game. We didn’t get the return at the weekend in the way that we wanted.
“The six/eight [blindside/No8] spine is getting pretty competitive in Scottish rugby, so we are looking for a similar thing to happen with the seven. Chris is probably further down the line [than Brown, as a specialist openside] and he is a good fit against England because we need to play low to the ground and have a good ground feeder.”
As for fears that Brown may decide, at 31, to walk away from Test rugby, Johnson insisted he hoped that would not happen.
“I have been honest with Kelly from day one,” he continued. “With younger players coming through I am trying to be fair and have a look at the future for Scottish rugby. Kelly has plenty of desire and provides a different skill-set and he is a special man. He took it tough because he is competitive, but I don’t want him to be sitting there [being told he is dropped] playing ‘Jingle Bells’.
“The next morning he woke up and said it was about Chris’ debut and ‘not my demise’. That speaks volumes for the man. Kelly is a special person and this is not the end of the road for Kelly unless he chooses otherwise. But I have said all along that all captains need to make the team on rugby first, and it’s no different with Greig. He has to make the team to be captain.”
Former Scotland captain Mike Blair, now retired from international rugby, expressed his sympathy for Brown, but hailed the attributes of Brown’s replacement Fusaro. Blair said: “The story of the day is undoubtedly the selection of Chris Fusaro at openside flanker for Scotland. A specialist open-side, selected at the expense of the captain, winning his first cap. He will not let you down in terms of effort, bravery and guts – key elements for a seven. He’s a really talented player who will need to get up to speed with international rugby quickly. I feel for Kelly Brown, though.”
Scotland team to play England in the RBS 6 Nations Championship at Murrayfield on Saturday;
Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar (all Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) Greig Laidlaw (captain) (Edinburgh Rugby); Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby), Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Fusaro (Glasgow Warriors), David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby). Replacements: Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier), Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Max Evans (Castres).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France). Assistant referee: George Clancy (Ireland) and Mike Fraser (New Zealand). TMO: Eric Gauzins (France).