SCOTLAND’S interim coach Scott Johnson believes his team has not improved sufficiently to talk of exploiting Irish weaknesses in Sunday’s Six Nations clash at Murrayfield.
Instead, he described his squad’s development as being like an episode of popular American TV drama CSI.
The unpredictable Australian insisted that a failure to improve again after the Twickenham defeat to England and the 34-10 home triumph over Italy, or instead look for hope in Ireland’s problems, would only lead to a continuation of the rollercoaster ride that Scottish rugby has endured for the past decade.
“I keep saying it and you may as well write the next three or four weeks’ speech,” said Johnson, before heading off in an unpredictable direction.
“It’s like CSI [Crime Scene Investigation]. Week one, all we left were fingerprints. The second week [against Italy] we had eye witnesses to the event, so there was improvement, but, in the third week [Sunday], we still want to be there when the police arrive. How’s that?”
Johnson stressed that the key to winning the game was the same as against Italy two weeks ago – the tackle area. It is what blew up Scotland’s hopes at Twickenham, and the coach said: “How we played against Italy won’t be good enough to beat Ireland. Ireland is a quality defensive unit for a start – a world-class defensive unit. So we’ve got to take it up another peg or two.”
“The fact is we’ve got to keep improving. We’ve got to keep getting better. We’re showing improvement at it, but, at the end of this campaign, I’ll still be saying the same because it’s determining so many fixtures. That area is determining our ability to play the way we want to play.”
The coach is confident his side have the firepower to claim a second consecutive championship win, but, underlining how tough that simple target is, Scottish rugby has to go back 12 years for the last occasion when the national side managed to back up one win with another in the same Six Nations. That was when they followed a 23-19 defeat of Italy with a 32-10 win over Ireland, albeit with a six-month gap due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
Ireland have been forced into five changes and will run out at Murrayfield on Sunday with the uncapped Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall in the key roles of stand-off and inside centre.
Johnson, in contrast, has made just one enforced change, with Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross replacing the unavailable Euan Murray at tighthead to face Tom Court, called up to replace the suspended Cian Healy. Johnson explained that the choice between him and Glasgow’s Moray Low came down to the Edinburgh man being the stronger scrummager.
Of the Irish, Johnson added: “They’ll come buoyant by their history here. They’ve had good success here so we’re going to have to improve. There’s no doubt. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
The message has been that beating Italy was just one step in Johnson’s bid to put Scotland back among the big boys of world rugby and, if the players do not focus on improvement, they will receive a harsh wake-up call. So the idea of exploiting Ireland’s inexperienced stand-off and inside centre is not one Johnson entertains. He said: “We could sit here and try to work out how we’re going to exploit things, or just try and get ourselves right. Where we are at the moment is we’re at the stage of trying to get ourselves right. We only have a week in camp to do this and we can talk about the opposition all day and all night, but the reality is that our ills and our success will lie with our ability, so this week is about us.
“Paddy Jackson is a good player. What tends to happen when you lose a player internationally is that everyone is probably not as closely aware of the skill-sets of the players that replace them.
“Paddy has done good at provincial level. He’s a threat, is a good player and in two or three years’ time we may be talking about Paddy Jackson being a quality player in world rugby but at the moment nobody knows who he is really.
“But we are sure that he’s a threat and we are sure that we’re be paying him due courtesy to make sure he doesn’t hurt us too much.”
Players have spoken highly of Johnson’s ability to be clear and consistent in his message, so while some of what he says is coach-speak, and the CSI reference a bit of entertaining Aussie nonsense that delights weary journalists fed up with cliched answers, there is little doubt that he does have a firm grasp of what it will take for Scotland to truly turn a corner.
By beating Italy they leapfrogged the Italians and Tonga, jumping from 12th to tenth, in the official IRB world rankings, but Johnson believes this squad, with the talent coming through at under-20 level, is capable of being among the top six nations in the world. Ireland are currently ranked sixth and so Sunday’s match is a timely test of how far off that target they are two games into his stewardship.