SCOTT Johnson has made three changes to the Scotland team for what is shaping up to be another hugely important clash with Italy in the RBS Six Nations.
And, grilled about the waves of criticism he and his players received in the wake of the dismal 20-0 defeat to England, Johnson said he welcomed rather than resented it.
“No-one’s complaining. No-one’s bleating,” he said, insisting he relishes the challenge of turning the team’s fortunes around.
The team for Saturday’s match with Italy was limited to just three changes despite virtually an entire new XV being touted across the media in the past week. David Denton is the highest profile Calcutta Cup casualty, the Edinburgh No 8 being dropped to allow Johnnie Beattie to return. Johnson acknowledged that Denton has been one of Scotland’s best ball-carriers against England, but believes that Beattie will provide more work around the pitch and more of the link play needed for the fast game Scotland are aiming to take to the Italians in Rome. He agreed, too, that Denton and Beattie had performed well together in the past, and that Ryan Wilson did not have his best game against England, but insisted that he believed there to be a lot of quality to come from Wilson at blindside.
Johnson’s changes are designed to improve the lineout and pack work-rate. Richie Gray returns in the second row with Tim Swinson, the lock, to drop out – largely to accommodate Jim Hamilton, who calls the lineouts. But the lineout shambles of the past two games has cost Ross Ford his hooker’s berth and, while Jonathan Humphreys continues with his lineout plans in the face of concern from some of his forwards, Scott Lawson is given the chance to improve the set-piece. However, the backlash following the Calcutta Cup disappointment has moved well beyond the fortunes of this particular team, and so Johnson was faced with questions at yesterday’s team announcement over how far Scottish rugby is off the Test pace, and why he was the man to effect a turnaround. Pushed further on the ‘Campaign for Change’ launched on Facebook and the momentum of comment in newspapers and social media, he said he welcomed that, too, as vital to improving the Scottish game.
“You always look at yourself,” he said. “We’re disappointed by the way we performed, we won’t run away from that. We felt we let ourselves down, we wanted to compete and give a performance we could be proud of and we didn’t do that. Execution of skills wasn’t good enough and we let ourselves down. Did guys intentionally miss a ball or miss a lineout or miss a clearout or drop a ball? Of course not. Our consistency and our execution just wasn’t good enough and we paid for that against a quality side.
“So, they [supporters] have the right to feel disappointed. Everyone has. We feel disappointed and we’re not running away from that. It [the reaction] is no more hysterical than it is in Wales when they lose to England, or Australia when they get beat by England at cricket. It’s the life we live and we understand that.
“No-one’s complaining; no-one’s bleating. We let ourselves down by the fact that we didn’t put in a great performance, and some of our skills fell down and we could have done better. What are we going to do? Sit down and deny that? We’re not going to do that.
“I don’t think that [clamour for change] is a bad thing either,” he continued, “that we look at ourselves and try to find out what’s in the best interests of Scotland. That’s a good thing because for a long time we haven’t had consistent success.
“That’s not a criticism. That’s just an observation. But we have to ask ourselves why is that and what do we need to do. If these are the questions being asked, with the right intent to ask where the solutions are, then that’s for the good of the game, for the organisation, and that’s what we’re doing.
“We all sit as a Scotland fan wanting the best for Scotland. How to get that is the question. I don’t have all those answers but what intrigues me is the challenge, to get more players playing and get them competitive.
“That’s for another day, but I don’t see people asking the question as a negative. That’s a good thing. Finding the solution, if we’re all in this together, is a good thing, too.”
Johnson was intriguing yesterday. His answers were shortened, his demeanour less jokey than usual, and it is clear that the criticism of his penchant for funny one-liners has hit home. He regularly clipped his sentences yesterday before they reached the throwaway point, and was happy to state that while enthusiastic about the role of ‘SRU Director of Rugby’ coming his way after the Six Nations, he is focused entirely on the job in hand this weekend. And he does not agree with the suggestion from south of the border that Scotland should be “put on notice” by the Six Nations to improve their game or be shipped out.
“France got the wooden spoon last year, and no-one’s looking to throw them out. Look, and this is what takes me back to my next job, we need more players playing the game at an appropriate skillset.
“If we get that, we’re fine. It hasn’t occurred for some time but I’m not there to say why that was; I’m just acknowledging where we are and seeing what we need to do. We’ll be a top- flight rugby nation if we get our processes right.
“That [suggestion] was emotion from a one-off game. I get that. But, if we get players playing, coming through quickly, there’s no doubt we have talent in Scotland. There’s areas we need to fill quicker than others and we need to have better rugby players, athletes who are good rugby players as well.
“That’s what excites me about my other role because we’ve got a board who wants to do that, wants to drive academies through and get players through. There’s acknowledgement that there’s a need to do that, and I like that.
“We’ve got to acknowledge where we are, get processes and competitions in place, but we’re playing Italy this week, and that’s the greater focus at the moment and right here, now, I want to make sure this team is competitive.”
He has balanced the need for improving the lineout with standing by players such as Greig Laidlaw, Duncan Weir and Matt Scott, who all acknowledged within the squad that they had below-par games against England, because he believes in them and their ability to be key players over the next few years.
In terms of where Scotland need to change to uncover a first win of the year this weekend, the lack of possession against England points directly to the lineout. The Scotsman is aware that a clutch of Scotland players have challenged Johnson and forwards coach Jon Humphreys on the latter’s new lineouts. Previous coaches worked lineouts to suit Ford’s strengths, and Scotland had a secure set-piece, but Humphreys has brought in change and it has not met with unanimous support.
Johnson was keen to lift some of the heat off Ford, insisting the lineout was “a collective problem”, and he acknowledged that it had been difficult to lift the players after the disappointment of performing so poorly against England. He said a much talked-about move of Stuart Hogg to stand-off was still in his thoughts for the future, but not yet, and backed the young centres to show their ability this weekend.
“It’s not easy for players, but this is the world we live in and they have to get it,” he said. “You’re the first to stand in the queue when the plaudits come your way, aren’t you? So you can’t sit down and sulk. You have to get on with it. That’s just life.
“We haven’t been out celebrating or running around having birthday parties. These are the challenges that confront us. There have been easier weeks in my life.
“There’s a growth in the Italian side and a will to play a more expansive game. If they get on the front foot, and we allow them to get on the front foot, I think they are better in the backs than people realise.
“But the key for us this weekend is execution of skill.
Execution of skill. That’s it. We execute, we win, we don’t we lose. That’s it.”
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