SCOTT Johnson has stuck to his pledge to develop his team through this RBS Six Nations Championship by making just two enforced changes to the side that was beaten 38-18 by England for this Saturday’s match against Italy.
There were inevitable calls for changes in the wake of the 20-point reverse at Twickenham, but while he praised the ‘A’ squad’s defeat of England Saxons, Johnson repeated his mantra that he needs to see players learn quickly and bounce back from below-par displays to ascertain who has what it takes, mentally and in terms of skills, to be part of the brighter future he is trying to create.
He will bring a smile to the face of many Glasgow and Scotland supporters, however, by handing Rob Harley his first Test start at Murrayfield, the down-to-earth West of Scotland product having made a match-winning debut when he came off the bench and scored against Samoa at the end of last summer’s successful South Seas tour.
The 22-year-old has arguably been the form player in Scottish rugby this season and only his inexperience at international level kept him out of Saturday’s tournament opener. However, when Alasdair Strokosch was ruled out by a fractured bone around his eye, suffered early in the Calcutta Cup match, Johnson and his forwards chief Dean Ryan turned to the flame-haired flanker to bring his hard, no-nonsense qualities to the Scottish pack.
David Denton took over from Strokosch in Saturday’s game and Johnson insisted that a couple of obvious errors was not what counted against him taking over the No 6 jersey, but the fact that he views Denton as more of a No 8 style of head-up, skilful footballer than the nose-to-the-ground grafter he requires against the Italians. With Johnnie Beattie holding on to the No 8 jersey after a decent return to the Test arena, Denton remains on the bench, able to cover both No 6 and No 8 roles.
The only other change is at hooker, where Ross Ford is given the opportunity to restate his claim to the starting berth after kicking his heels on the bench for almost the first hour at the weekend, while Dougie Hall was rewarded for his Glasgow form. Hall took a massive whack on the leg in one tackle and is still being nursed through a knee injury. If he is passed fit in time for Saturday Hall will take the bench spot, and if not Pat MacArthur will win his first call-up to the full squad, again reflecting the Ayr lad’s fine form for the Warriors over the past year.
Explaining his thinking in selection, Johnson said: “We picked the team that was largely on form and future. That was at the start. We have a short-ish turnaround and we’re still in the tournament. I wanted consistency of training purposes, ethos and calls, and we’ll review it again after the weekend.
“The fact is there’s been an honesty call within the camp and it’s up to these boys now this Saturday. The ideal situation is to look at these first two games, get a bit of impetus and consistency and review it after that.”
Having praised the players’ attitude, honesty and commitment to improvement, Johnson was asked whether the simple fact was that the players were not good enough to win Test matches at this level.
He replied: “I think that’s a bit harsh. We do some quality work. We look potent at times. It’s that consistency of performance – we’ve just got to get a total 80 minute game out of this side.
“Whether it’s confidence, immaturity of playing … I don’t know the combination. But if you want to be good at something you’ve got to make it more important and we’re deluding ourselves to think it’s other things. We just need to get this are of the game right and it’s something we can hang our hat on.
“We’re not perfect. The lads are not perfect. The fact is we’ve just got to understand what we need to do to get better, and if we keep constantly doing it and keep improving that way we have the skill set in certain areas to put sides away.”
Prior to the tournament the rare prospect of three home matches in the middle of the Six nations was appealing. Playing Italy first-up with a break, then Ireland and a break before facing Wales seemed a promising schedule. However, Italy’s win against France on Sunday, their second at home in succession, has heightened tension.
Johnson pointed out that with England and Ireland meeting this Sunday, there is the realistic prospect of one of those two finishing the first fortnight of competition on four points, the other on two along with Scotland, Italy and France, and the Welsh at the foot of the table with none.
But he is not underestimating the size of the challenge the buoyant Azzurri, whose last two championship games have brought wins against Scotland and the French, will present at Murrayfield this weekend. It is an opportunity to show that Scotland remain part of a global game that is improving year on year.
“We’re deluding ourselves to think that the world order hasn’t changed,” he said. “In the last ten years Italy has improved as a rugby nation.
“I remember going to one of the early world cup draws and Italy was in the draw and you just thought ‘Thank God they’re in our pool’. I went to the last draw and no-one was saying the same thing.
“Was it [victory over France] a shock? No, it wasn’t a shock. If you look at their autumn form they did really well against Australia and New Zealand. They didn’t get a win but they were very competitive in areas of the games. And sometimes you get the French in a great mood and sometimes slightly off, but that Italian side’s a very, very good side.”
Asked if there was greater pressure from knowing Italy were targeting the Scots as their most likely win, Johnson added: “Pressure is a funny thing and we’re going to walk towards it. We’re not running away.
“They’re a combative side. They’ll want to turn up here and be combative. So do we. If you look at the last 15 months they’ve played a more expansive game, so they’ve got the ability to be a bit more potent than they have been in previous years.
“Listen, they can target whoever they like. We’re targeting them too. It’s the way it is. But trust me we’ll be walking towards the pressure not away from it.”