THERE is a limit to how far any player can go when disagreeing with a coach who has dropped him. It would be understandable if David Denton came very close to that limit a couple of weeks ago when Scott Johnson told him he was out of the Scotland team to play Italy.
In the previous game against England, Denton was just about the only Scot to take the play to the opposition with real conviction. It could be construed as damning him with faint praise to say he was Scotland’s best player in that dire 20-0 defeat, but he was certainly doing well enough to provoke collective bemusement around Murrayfield when he was substituted in the second half. The 24-year-old forward looked baffled himself, as well as angry. And the emotions were similar ten days later when he was left out of the starting XV for the match in Rome.
Yesterday, a different, far more positive emotion was the order of the day when the team was announced for Saturday’s home game against France.
“It feels awesome,” Denton said of his return to the team. “I was very excited when I was told I’d be back.”
Having said that, Denton admitted it had felt less than awesome to be left out for the previous match. He has no pretensions about being immune to criticism, nor illusions about being a perfect player. Yet, for all that he was able to understand the reasons advanced by Johnson, Denton also admitted that both emotionally and rationally they were hard to accept.
“I found it very tough, at the start,” he said. “It’s something I had to get over.
“It was the coach’s decision. He pointed out the reasons to me. He was pretty open about it and so was I.
“There are areas of my game that I need to work on personally but, in the short term, if I keep doing what I’m good at, getting us over the gain line and putting in a few shots here and there, I think my place in the team will be merited.
“I think the main message I got for the Italy game was that there was going to be a change in our gameplan, and that my game didn’t particularly suit it. My argument was that I can change the way I play. But, if you’re looking to get consistency in a team, which is a big thing for us, you can’t have players chopping and changing how they play in a game.
“Although I was frustrated, I understood Johnno’s decision. And, if there is one luxury we’ve got in this team, it’s strength in the back row.
“We’ve got great players involved this week – and, for someone like Al Strokosch not to be involved in the Six Nations shows how fierce the competition is. It’s something I didn’t take too personally, although it’s hard not to. When I came on against Italy, I thought I did my job well enough to merit selection this week.”
Johnson has said he wants to see Denton do more off the ball, acknowledging that, when in possession, the Edinburgh player can be extremely effective. In the abstract, the coach’s assessment amounts to the belief that Denton needs to develop a more well-rounded game.
In reality, though, it is hard to summon up the energy to increase your off-the-ball contribution when you have expended phenomenal quantities of effort being used as a human battering ram. While being more than willing to attempt a more versatile contribution, Denton is also aware of the need to stick to his strengths.
“What I’ve learned is not to change who you are as a player,” he added. “My strengths are always going to be what they are. I’ve got to develop my so-called weaknesses – areas that I can improve. But I’m always going to be a player who is in the team to get us on the front foot and carry the ball.
“I would like to open up my off-loading game a bit more. It’s something I did have but, unfortunately, I seem to have lost it over the last couple of months – since I came back from my injury. It’s something I need to rediscover, because it’s an important part of the game.
“Because I’m generally getting over the gain-line, off-loads should be easy. It’s just a matter of me changing my mindset about it. You don’t have as much time in Test rugby and, if you want to talk about off-loads, the first thing you’ve got to do is win the gain-line. The last thing you want to do is what the French do from time to time, getting tackled behind the gain-line, running backwards and trying to do something fancy with the ball.”
Given his fondness for running forward and doing nothing too fancy with the ball, it is curious that, despite his 20 caps, Denton is one of only two players in Saturday’s team – prop Ryan Grant being the other – not to have scored any points for their country. “I would like to get on the scoreboard because it’s been a long time coming. I could tell you I’ve been so close so many times, but nobody cares about that.
“What I’m in the team to do is get us in the position to score tries. But, if I get one, that’s great.”