THERE is one player in the Scotland squad who laughs to himself when he reads comments about interim head coach Scott Johnson being a popular figure and friend to all within the squad.
Matt Scott states that he respects Johnson as a coach, and believes that he has improved as a player with the Australian around, but as for “Mr Nice Guy”, think again.
“It is obviously nice to get picked and, if the coach likes you, you are going to get picked and you get that chance to play together,” he began. “I would not say he is chilled, though.
“He is very hard on us in that he just won’t let up and let us stay at this level. You find that with Scott. If he thinks you have potential to go a long way he will really hammer you and will never be off your back. He is like that with me, constantly on my back about everything.
“I might have had a great game in attack but missed a couple of clean-outs and he will hammer me on that. That’s the way he is and you’ve got to take it. He says to me, ‘I will keep on top of you, I will be relentless.’ But, to be honest, I am more than happy with that because, if I start to rest on my laurels and think I did alright, that I had a couple of line breaks though my defence work was not all that great, then I won’t develop as a player.
“I know that I need that all-round game to be a world-class centre or for us [with Alex Dunbar] to be a world-class centre pairing. He is pretty hard on us but I know that it is a good thing.”
It is perhaps akin to a father-son relationship in some ways in that Johnson liked the look of Scott when he arrived in Scotland and admitted to being impressed by both his statistics and work ethic, but also saw what he perceived to be a lack of consistent return on the field
The problem which Johnson diagnosed was a lack of belief in himself and so the coach has set about both cultivating the idea that Scott can be world-class, drawing on his experience of working with some of the world’s best centres in Australia and Wales, and continuing to regularly kick his backside when he believes the player is dropping into a comfort zone.
And now Johnson has another young prospect to get excited about in Dunbar, who is similarly relishing working under him, as well as Gregor Townsend at Glasgow. The pair’s best moment together was arguably last summer when they outshone the South African centre duo Jean de Villiers and JJ Engelbrecht, at least for over an hour of another of those big Tests that Scotland were dominating but let slip in the final stages.
Tomorrow, the Scottish duo face their biggest test since, possibly even greater, when they come up against Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. Johnson knows both of those players and believes his young Scots have the potential to be better. How close they are at this stage he and no-one else really knows. But Scott is interested to find out.
“Everything about this weekend is new and exciting for me,” he said. “I have never played in the Millennium Stadium so that is a new challenge for me. I have heard lots of positive things about it, its atmosphere and everything that goes along with it.
“Wales, as a team, are very dangerous, a structured team but with some great individuals, and they will pose a physical as well as a technical challenge for us.
“And myself and Alex will be playing against Roberts and Davies who were the last [British and Irish] Lions centre pairing so it will help us to get a bearing on where we are as a centre partnership.
“Roberts and Davies are completely different players. Roberts is very direct, very physical and is great at what he does. He will always try to beat you on the inside – he is not the guy to make an outside break, he is straight up and down – whereas Davies has a good bounce on him, a good outside break and fend as well as a good kicking game with his left foot.
“Defensively they are both solid, a great balance in that respect as a centre partnership, so it will be a tough challenge but I always look forward to these things and it is the same with Alex. We won’t back down, it is always good to get that chance to prove yourself against the best. I have watched those two play for years and admired the way they play; it will be good to see where I am up against them.”
Scott has plenty of respect for his centre partner too, replying, when asked of his team-mate’s strengths: “He is deceptively quick off the mark; that is his main asset. He has that acceleration and for a big guy with his frame he is an intimidating guy to play against.
“I have played against him a few times and you do worry about him running on a short line. You have to respect that, you can’t brush off him running decoy plays, you have to stay with him. He is also a good guy to play with and does take a bit of heat off me for carrying ball because he is good at it as well.
“We are starting to get a better understanding of each other as well, which just comes through play. We’re both looking forward to this game and playing in that cauldron of an arena. It will be good.”
There are signs in recent weeks that their partnership is beginning to gel, notably in the roles both played in Dunbar’s brace of tries in Italy and then in setting up Tommy Seymour for the second try against France at Murrayfield on Saturday.
“It is nice to see that we are finishing off chances,” acknowledged Scott. “It is not something that Scotland have been known for in the past. But we have a back line with a lot of dangerous aspects in it – myself and Alex can carry the ball in the centre, we have guys who can run the length of the field, guys with great feet like Hoggy, and we have got pace. So we have the ingredients of a good back line. We just need to be more clinical in identifying when we have 5-on-3 or 4-on-3 and be more clinical in taking that.
“That was a classic backs try at the weekend where everyone did their job correctly and Tommy managed to finish it well. It is pleasing to do that, it gives us confidence that we can strike well with our backs. We have a long way to go but the signs are positive. We are moving in the right direction.”
Scott and Dunbar are still only 23 and made their international debuts in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Scott wins his 21st cap tomorrow and Dunbar his eighth.
It is invidious to suggest that there comes a time when young players graduate in Test rugby. Evidence shows that they learn most from mistakes, from defeats, but, crucially, only when they turn the lesson into victory, and realise how they did it. Belief is key. Scott’s is developing and there would be something romantic about him grasping what would be his biggest victory to date on the occasion of his 21st cap while the similarly shy Dunbar has that kind of “couldn’t care less who I’m playing, let’s just get out there” approach typical perhaps of an upbringing on the farm that augurs well for the intimidating atmosphere he will stride into tomorrow afternoon.
“We’ve played together against South Africa and that was a big challenge,” added Scott, “but they [Roberts and Davies] are the benchmark for us being the last two centres to start a Test for the Lions. That is probably why it will be the biggest one for us at the moment. Because we’ve had a few games together and have come to know each other we can kind of say, ‘Right we’ve learned this, we’ve learned that, we can put in an 80-minute performance together’.”
Much of that will depend on others, not least a Welsh team eager to finish a meagre championship on a high note, but the message from Johnson is that Scotland should be buoyed with belief rather than cowed heading to Cardiff with one of its youngest and most exciting back lines for some time.