THREE key areas had to be tackled by the Scotland coaches in an effort to repair the damage of the performance against South Africa in time for the final Test instalment with the Wallabies, but life is never simple in the world of Scottish rugby.
The back line remains open to conjecture as injury to Tommy Seymour has led interim head coach Scott Johnson to delay naming his final XV and bench. Duncan Weir looks certain to take over from Ruaridh Jackson at stand-off, with Chris Cusiter pushing to reclaim the No 9 jersey from Greig Laidlaw, but the quandaries are further out.
Mark Bennett, the 20-year-old Glasgow centre, was in line for a bench place and first cap, but if Seymour is ruled out Johnson may feel he requires greater variety and experience on the bench and opt instead for the more versatile Duncan Taylor and/or more experienced Max Evans. The Castres winger or Sean Lamont may indeed be in line for a move into the centres if Seymour’s injury does not clear up today.
But that is not where Scotland lost Sunday’s game to South Africa. The Boks dominated Scotland up front and that is where the more intriguing selection calls have been made.
The breakdown was a disaster so out of the team has gone John Barclay, whose specialist skills in that area it was hoped would be a major boost. The openside flanker is still to get back to his best form in a Scotland jersey, hardly surprising considering the 27-year-old spent most of last season injured and then all summer recovering from a major shoulder operation.
However, rather than give him another chance, the coaches have restored Kelly Brown to the No 7 jersey. ‘Mr Consistency’ was always going to return, but for Alasdair Strokosch on the blindside, the players having been told that they would be given two autumn games each and not asked to back up Test matches of ferocious intensity inside six days.
Instead, it is regular No 8 Johnnie Beattie who will wear the six jersey against the Wallabies with Brown in the position Johnson admitted last week did not suit him best. David Denton stays at No 8 as his education continues. That is especially intriguing against a team like Australia, who have made an art out of developing smaller, skilful opensides like George Smith, Phil Waugh, David Pocock and now Michael Hooper, for whom scrambling around on the ground, sticking heads and hands into rucks and causing mayhem, is the equivalent of being handed the keys to a sweet shop.
Key to Australia’s game are the players that oil the machinery and turn the ball-winning of the front five into the ball-running of the hugely skilful backs. So why would Scotland opt for three stand-up, physical players, ignoring the claims of Glasgow flanker Chris Fusaro, and play their best ball player, Beattie, in the jersey usually occupied by the biggest bludgeon?
“We tried to go there [blindside] with Kelly,” said Johnson, “but we’ve got some bumps so Kelly’s doing this for the team. It wasn’t perfect for our plans, but it is an opportunity to have a look at Johnnie on the side too. He’s played a bit of seven at age-grade so we want to have a look at left and right.”
In other words, rather than sticking to openside or blindside Beattie and Brown will effectively play both, which is not a familiar Scottish tactic. Johnson denied he was stretching his team’s shape simply to find space for his skipper, and said that had he not warranted a start he would not have got one.
“We’d like better competition in the seven area. I’m not hiding from that. Sometimes we just have to look at how we play the sevens. [Australia] play sevens that are very hard on the ball and we get that. We’re trying to find kids that are real quality on the ball and if we can’t get that then we have to find guys who can do other things.”
What about Fusaro?
“He’s just not there yet. I’ve told him that in certain areas of his game he has to improve. At the moment he’s not winning the 50-50 competitions that he should be winning on a regular basis against the big boys.
“It’s a very similar conversation I had with Phil Waugh many years ago,” said the former Wallabies coach. “When you are a player like that you have to make sure that your skill set is at an elite level, when that’s your bread and butter, and right at the moment we’ve looked at all the games and he’s doing really well, and is a kid we really like, but in that area of the game he has to keep getting better and better.
“When he strikes it and is far better than anyone else then Chris Fusaro is in our plans, and rest assured he’s part of the growth of this team as well. He just has to get better.”
He continued: “The competition that exists for sport in Australia puts pressure on them to play a certain way. It’s no coincidence that over the last decade they’ve produced wonderful sevens because it’s a lifeblood if you really want to play that style and get it right. And they have some special players. I saw Hooper as a kid and played against his father. He’s a talented lad. They have Pocock injured, and a few in the line, but if you haven’t got it then you have to do the tackle area slightly different. We have Ross Rennie out injured, remember.
“So we have to do what we have to do, but make no mistake: we understand the quality that we’re up against in that tackle area.”
Kieran Low is a new forward Johnson wants to see off the bench on Saturday, though he is not an openside either. “He’s a wonderfully gifted athlete, no doubt about it,” said the coach. “He’s a quality that we don’t have a lot of. He’s played five, six and eight in his last three games, so he’s good enough athletically to play in the back row and he’s big enough to play up front, and that’s a good sign for us for the future because it puts pressure on people.”
The lineout was a shambles early on against the Boks and helped to hand them an unassailable 21-0 lead. The Scots have taken succour from the fact they won 15 of the 16 lineouts after losing five of the first six, and stick with thrower Ross Ford and caller Jim Hamilton.
The locks, Johnson stated, were picked on form over the first two Tests – Hamilton played better than Richie Gray he said plainly – while Grant Gilchrist was always primed for bench duty this time as he vies with newcomer Jonny Gray for the understudy role. Ford, Johnson said, seemed to lack presence against South Africa, but watching the match footage and analysis again influenced him.
“I’d hate to be a hooker – you’re blamed for every ill,” the coach said. “Fordy was actually responsible for one lineout [loss] – the rest were calls and jumpers, but it always focuses on the hooker. We actually had a look at Fordy’s game and it was one of those that surprised us when we finished because his work was far better than we thought watching it at the time.
“There are areas of Fordy’s game that he clearly needs to work on, but his tackle efficiency, his work post-tackle and work in the tackle area was far better than the naked eye saw. You talk about bread-and-butter skills, and that’s a big part of his game, but rest assured I don’t want Fordy, or any player, to be a walk-up certainty to start in this team. Pat [MacArthur] is going to put pressure on him.”
Moray Low was deemed to have earned another start at tighthead, as pressure is cranked up on Euan Murray – Scotland’s opening Six Nations match is on a Sunday – and Low and Ford. MacArthur and Murray as second-half substitutes are better blends for developing the less experienced front rows.
Scotland’s strength in depth remains an issue and Johnson is sticking by his early 2013 pledge to blood more players in the Test arena, but he still wants to finish the year with five wins out of 11 Tests, and so is trying to balance that with getting his best players on the park.
Scotland (v Australia in the viagogo Autumn Test at Murrayfield on Saturday 23 November, 6pm),
Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors) 7 caps, 1 try, 5 points
Max Evans (Castres) 36 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) 4 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
Nick De Luca (Edinburgh Rugby) 40 caps, 1 try, 5 points
Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 5 caps
Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) 81 caps, 12 tries, 60 points
Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) 23 caps, 3 conversions, 2 penalties, 2 drop goals, 18 points
Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) 7 caps, 1 try, 2 conversions, 9 points
Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors) 63 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) 23 caps, 3 tries, 23 conversions, 49 penalties, 208 points
1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) 12 caps
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) 70 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
3 Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) 22 caps
4 Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) 3 caps
5 Jim Hamilton
(Montpellier) 49 caps, 1 try, 5 points
6 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) 25 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
7 Kelly Brown (Saracens) 59 caps, 4 tries, 20 points CAPTAIN
8 David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) 16 caps
16 Pat MacArthur (Glasgow Warriors) 2 caps
17 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) 29 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
18 Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors) 57 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
19 Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) 3 caps
20 Kieran Low (London Irish) uncapped
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa). Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzere (France) and Francisco Pastrana (Argentina). TMO: Geoff Warren (England)