SCOTT Johnson will begin a new period of talent exposure in Durban this weekend which he hopes will send Scotland to the Rugby World Cup in 2015 with the strongest squad it has ever taken to the tournament.
After the embarrassment of suffering a pool exit for the first time, in New Zealand in 2011, Johnson’s desire as the interim head coach is to widen the depth of talent. So, he, and assistant coaches Jonathan Humphreys, Matt Taylor, Duncan Hodge and Massimo Cuttitta, have placed their faith in six uncapped players – Greig Tonks, Alex Dunbar and Pat MacArthur in the starting line-up and Stevie Lawrie, Peter Horne and Duncan Taylor on the bench – to face Samoa in Saturday’s opening match in the Castle Lager Test Series. Stand-off Tom Heathcote and Grant Gilchrist, the Edinburgh lock, also have only one cap each.
The squad features a relatively experienced spine with Sean Lamont, Matt Scott, Greig Laidlaw, Euan Murray, Al Kellock and a back row of Alasdair Strokosch, Johnnie Beattie and skipper Kelly Brown, but Johnson is eager to see the new faces perform in a way that suggests they have a future at Test level.
“If you want to discover new lands you’ve got to be prepared to leave the shore,” he said, “and we’re leaving the shore. We have 25 Test matches [before RWC 2015] and I need to broaden the base. I make no excuses for it.
“I’ve done a lot of these tours in my time at the end of the year and you’ve got to use them to start searching. Test footy is a funny thing and the brain works in funny ways; how players handle Test footy, going from heaven into hell and turning hell into heaven.
“I can’t buy or coach what these opportunities give and I intend to give some kids a run to find out.”
He classed Heathcote as a newcomer too, the Bath youngster’s sole Test involvement to date coming in the final quarter of Andy Robinson’s demoralising finale against Tonga in November. But, as with the new pivot, Johnson believes there are few risks as he sees genuine potential in all of the uncapped players.
He said: “Tom showed loyalty to us at a young age and has real talent in a position that we’re not overly strong in. I think his skill-set is made for Test footy so it’s a perfect opportunity away for him to explore and demonstrate that for us.
“Alex’s form has been wonderful with Glasgow. He possesses something and his development from last year’s tour to now has been exceptional, both physically and in terms of his rugby. He had a bit of a lull in the year and a disappointing six or seven weeks and then all of a sudden came out of it, and that showed a nice maturity, and he has the athletic prowess to play at Test level.
“I’m liking what I see and I’m liking the midfield. We left a couple at home [Nick de Luca and Max Evans] because I wanted a chance to explore different positions and give people the opportunity without having a senior player standing next to him, to see if they can grow.
“With Tonksy, we wanted to have a look at the balance in the team. One of the things that came out of our notes at the Six Nations was that our kicking options were limited when we didn’t have a left-footer in the team. His form through the years has been good. Of course he’s had some not-so-great games but his form has been constant and we’re keen to see if we can get a balance there, which is also one of the reasons why Peter Horne is on the bench. We’re wanting to see how different people measure up and the versatility we have.
“I keep forgetting about Pat [as a debutant] because he’s been around the camp for so long and nearly got on the pitch in the Six Nations.
“I actually thought long and hard about not bringing Fordy on tour because in my heart of hearts I felt he needed a real off-season to have a crack, and sometimes we’re going to have to fill the tank in him because he plays a lot of rugby. But because we had a few senior boys that couldn’t come, and hookers not fit [Dougie Hall is injured], I thought it was probably best for the team to bring Fordy.
“So someone’s looking down and saying ‘it’s not the right thing’. It’s a good time for Pat to get a chance. His form has been really good for Glasgow, he’s been on the cusp and he’s a good rugby player.
“From what I’ve seen the skills can come up a level and so it’s a good tour for Pat, and it’s an area we’re not strong in depth wise, so we need to get a few caps under our belts there.”
After Vern Cotter’s confirmation that he would remain at Clermont Auvergne until next June, Johnson re-iterated that it was no surprise and he is comfortable with his new dual role as national coach and SRU director of rugby. There is little doubt the two roles go hand-in-hand, if he can also cope with the demands of the wider game in Scotland.
For now, however, his focus is solely on this weekend’s starting point in an unusual quadrangular tournament, and he warned against the Samoans who were thumped by South African province the Golden Lions 74-14 on Saturday in a warm-up.
“I’m committed here to do the job. We found our man and it means waiting, and we’re happy to wait. But, the focus here is on this team and preparing for a Test match and the [Samoan] artillery is arriving. They finished up at the weekend with some of the opposition on their side – it was just a hit-out, a hard training session from their point of view.
“It’s a completely different beast that we’re up against this weekend and we know that. They’re not ranked where they are in the world [seventh; Scotland are tenth] through luck, but because they have good players, and people forget the fact that a large contingent of their team play abroad now so they are professional people.
“They have come off a wonderful autumn series. Though the performance when they beat Wales was stunning I thought the performance against the French was equally as good; a charge-down probably cost them the game. So we’re talking a quality international side now and we’re under no illusions about what lies in front of us.
“Our team will be different [to the 2012 meeting in Samoa] and their team will be slightly different. The relevance of that game is that we know what we’re up against and that it’s not insurmountable. If you analyse the two sides they’ll be vastly different probably, but whatever side they put out they will be similar in skill.”
Johnson added: “I think this is going to be a great tournament. It’s something I think that rugby needs. With professionalism coming into the game I think we’ve lost a bit of the old values, like sitting with the opposition and chatting, and I’m hoping to take the opportunity to let our guys sit with the opposition and opponents on the flights and enjoy each other’s company.
“For some of our younger guys that’s really important because for me, speaking as an old rugby player, some of my greatest friends come from the era I played rugby in, and I think that’s somewhat lacking now.
“So I really like the energy this tournament brings. It’s a nice blend of the old and new.”
Scotland (v Samoa in the Castle Lager Test Series at King’s Park, Durban on Saturday 8 June; kick-off 2.15pm local time, 1.15pm BST)
15 Greig Tonks (Edinburgh Rugby) uncapped
14 Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) 76 caps, 9 tries, 45 points
13 Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) 12 caps, 1 try, 5 points
11 Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby) 10 caps, 6 tries, 30 points
10 Tom Heathcote (Bath Rugby) 1 cap
9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) 18 caps, 2 tries, 16 conversions, 39 penalties, 159 points
1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) 10 caps
2 Pat MacArthur (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
3 Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors) 53 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
4 Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) 1 cap
5 Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) 52 caps, 1 try, 5 points
6 Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan) 32 caps, 1 try, 5 points
7 Kelly Brown (Saracens) capt, 57 caps, 4 tries, 20 points
8 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) 21 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
16 Stevie Lawrie (Edinburgh Rugby) uncapped
17 Alasdair Dickinson (Sale Sharks) 24 caps, 1 try, 5 points
18 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby) 21 caps, 1 try, 5 points
19 Jim Hamilton (Gloucester) 46 caps, 1 try, 5 points
20 Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors) 2 caps
21 Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) 6 caps, 1 try, 5 points
22 Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
23 Duncan Taylor (Saracens) uncapped.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland).
Assistant referees Marius Jonker and Sindile Mayende (both South Africa). TMO: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa).