SCOTLAND head coach Scott Johnson today did a U-turn and reinstated Kelly Brown to his team and the captaincy for Saturday’s RBS Six Nations match against France.
Johnson insisted the flanker had been chosen because his game was suited to the pitch and the opposition.
“It’s not a change of heart,” Johnson said when asked why he had decided to bring Brown back for this game after dropping him in wake of the opening weekend defeat in Ireland and replacing him with Glasgow’s Chris Fusaro for the subsequent matches against England and Italy.
“I never said Kelly’s career was over. I felt this was a better fit. I thought Chris had done well in areas of the game and was picked for certain reasons and did that, and got exposed in a couple of things, too. This is a good fit.
“The French team play the game a bit off the ground and, with Kelly’s skill-set, he has done a lot of good things. I don’t think just with a win we should not be looking at changing the team. He is a better fit for this team, this game.”
Johnson added: “Unlike other sides in the competition, France play above the ground a bit and there will be a lot of mauling. I think the pitch suits Kelly, too, and I’ve picked a side that can win the game and that’s most important.”
Brown is one of just three changes to the Scotland side, with David Denton returning at No 8 and Johnnie Beattie shifting to the blindside after Ryan Wilson was unable to train due to tonsillitis.
Prop Geoff Cross has been handed the starting tighthead berth after impressing off the bench in the 21-10 win over Italy 11 days ago, which means that Euan Murray’s return from a thumb injury will be from the bench. The starting back division remains as it was for the past
Johnson was also asked about captain Brown’s confidence after being dropped just one game into the tournament and whether his attitude in returning to his club, Saracens, and playing well and remaining involved with the Scotland training camp, even though released again prior to thre Italian match, had been a factor in his return.
“Every player you pick, you want a performance [from] whether it is his first or last time,” said Johnson. “I want Kelly to do the things Kelly does, the best Kelly can. He is no different from any other player. But part of the job we do is personal. You come across people you coach that you respect as a rugby player and a person. You would like to think you try to do the best by people and it [demotion] is not a nice thing to tell people.
“It [dropping Brown] would rank up there [with hardest decisions of Johnson’s career] because of the admiration I have for him as a human being.
“I take solace from the fact I am trying to do the best for Scotland as well. Sometimes they collide, sometimes they separate but the fact is I want to look him in the eye and say I made the decision I felt was in the best interests of Scotland. You don’t always get it right.”
Asked whether he had feared that Brown might retire from Test rugby in response to being dropped, Johnson added: “There was fear but not in that issue. I can only be honest. Knowing him as I do I would have been surprised, but I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else.
“He’s a special person but I can’t take that into account. You’ve just got to look him in the eye and tell him as truthfully as you can. It is a hard sport and a hard world and you can only be honest and I was honest with Kelly. When we spoke to him before the tournament he said he wanted his spot on merit.
“He is special human being and great rugby player. It is good for him and says a lot about him as an individual. I can’t speak more highly of him as an individual.”
There is a sense that Johnson may not be reacting to public pressure but, in fact, may have done so when deciding to leave Brown out as that came in the wake of the Ireland defeat, where the lack of a “groundhog” openside flanker was a key factor in Scotland losing the breakdown contest in the second half.
Johnson seems to prefer a big, bruising back row and he has returned to that this week, believing that many of the 150 or so breakdown battles will be contested higher off the ground against a similarly big French side than with noses pressed firmly on the Murrayfield turf.
As for his other selection decisions, Johnson was typically open and forthright about why he had opted for a back row with Denton in at No 8 and Beattie shifted to the No 6 jersey, Cross preferred to Low and Murray.
Even where there was not a change, he explained why he was sticking with Greig Laidlaw, despite some issues, rather than springing Chris Cusiter back into the fray.
All three areas were debated by the coaches he said, and part of the decisions were based on how to continue with the quest to create more competition for places in the Test squad.
Of the back row blend, he said that it was likely that Beattie and Denton will switch about, particularly at the set-piece, depending on who is in possession.
“Ryan [Wilson] wasn’t well enough to train so it was simple for me. I wanted the week to go as smoothly as it could so it was easy, the right thing for the team and preparation, so be it, get on with it.
“Dents has done some really good work but I said to him last week that I want more off the ball from him. Beattie at six? The number on his back is just that. The roles he’ll play at lineout will be those of a No 8. His role is different and he knows it better. It’s just a number on his back.
“As for Geoff [Cross], he earned the right to start and it sends the right message. Euan [Murray] started on the bench in the autumn because we thought Moray [Low] was playing better. We don’t want [players starting through] divine right and Geoff deserves the position.
Johnson admitted the choice at scrum-half had been tough. He said: “Chris’ form, bothregionally and when he has come on, has gone well. He’s exerting pressure there. But I like the fact that Greig has composure and he’s a good kicker, controls the game with the young backs we have. He’s a different type of player in many ways and he helps Dunc [Weir].
“I’m not getting away from the fact that there are areas he needs to improve on but they all do. There are understated things that Greig does that the team gets; he controls a room, there’s leadership and composure. We want a bit more from his core skills but he’s a wonderful rugby player.”
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)
14 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors)
13 Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors)
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby)
11 Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors)
10 Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors)
9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby)
1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors)
2 Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons)
3 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby)
4 Richie Gray (Castres)
5 Jim Hamilton (Montpellier)
6 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier)
7 Kelly Brown (Saracens)
8 David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby)
16 Ross Ford, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Euan Murray, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Max Evans.