THERE were no major surprises in Scott Johnson’s selection for the opening RBS Six Nations Championship match away to Ireland on Sunday, but there was a sprinkling of names on the team-sheet that required a bit of explanation.
There was a sprinkling of expected players missing, too. No Alasdair Strokosch, no Ruaridh Jackson and no Richie Gray, the latter the only one of that trio to even make the bench, and one of the most callow Scottish midfields selected to head into Six Nations battle since Matt Williams unleashed Dan Parks, Andy Henderson and Tom Philip together on the Test stage a decade ago.
The pack is very strong and, while all too aware that suggesting Ryan Wilson would bring some aggression, would inevitably bring raised eyebrows, with the Glasgow flanker awaiting his next court date on an assault charge, Johnson insisted that he had picked an eight that could out-muscle Ireland in the physical combat stakes and “go to the dark places”.
Glasgow stand-off Duncan Weir started the last Test match, against Australia, alongside centre Duncan Taylor, and so it hardly shook the Murrayfield foundations to announce them yesterday. But Weir has played just half an hour of rugby since his last start for Glasgow, in the Boxing Day game against Edinburgh over five weeks ago, as Jackson was preferred by Warriors coach Gregor Townsend.
Taylor has started only eight games for Saracens this season, but he stepped into the hole left by the injured Brad Barritt
recently and performed well as the team reached the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. They are joined by Alex Dunbar at outside centre, who, like Taylor, made his Test debut on Scotland’s tour to South Africa last summer.
All three are talented and skilful players, and have shown in the past year that they have genuine potential to perform at this level but, with 17 caps between them, there is no escaping the green appearance of the Scottish midfield, only underlined by the fact that they are expected to face one of the most experienced trios in the tournament – Jonny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll the combination expected to play for Ireland.
On the back-line selection, Johnson hinted that Weir was preferred because his natural kicking game better suits how he intends to play in the Aviva Stadium.
“It was a tough one,” said Johnson. “We quite like the skill set that Duncan brings to the team, stuff we don’t have across the board, and he’s added some things to his game which we think is a really good combination with Greig [Laidlaw].
“The skill set is something you guys can work out but I think he’s developing as a player. It’s good to have competition there – we’d like to see one of them command a spot at their region but that hasn’t occurred. We’ve gone with what we think is the best fit for us.
“We had discussions about Matt Scott, but I didn’t think it was right on that lad for two easons. One, that he hasn’t played for a long time, and, two, Duncan Taylor’s form at club level has been really good.
“He did a good job for us in the autumn and I don’t want anyone to have a walk-up start to this team so I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Johnson also has great faith in Dunbar, and prefers what he offers to the skills of Nick de Luca. It is a big call, as Dunbar faces the prospect of reining in a fired-up O’Driscoll. Underlining his awareness of the perils of injury, the Irish centre, who will retire in the summer, said this week that he would be treating Sunday as his last Six Nations game at home.
Dunbar has surprised a few with his ability to provide a defensive full stop to world-class players at European and Test level so far, and Johnson is looking forward to the challenge thrown to his youngsters. But it is also a sign of the lack of strength in depth and injury issues in Scotland that Johnson has picked his fifth 10/12/13 combination in just 12 Test matches.
Wider out, Tommy Seymour was not considered due to a lack of game-time, but the back three is strong and straightforward. Johnson welcomes back Stuart Hogg, who missed the summer tour due to British and Irish Lions duty and the autumn Tests through injury. And the coach compared Sean Lamont to a red wine that gets better with age and knows that Sean Maitland has the potential to be one of the most dangerous attacking players in the championship if Scotland can get ball to him.
Hogg and Laidlaw are both primed to cover the stand-off role if needed with no stand-off named on the bench, but Johnson admitted that he is eager to see Hogg moving into the playmaker role late in games.
Up front, Gray’s omission was explained by the emphasis on Tim Swinson’s form.
“We talk about form and we look at club form but also at Test level,” said the coach. “Tim’s form at Test level has been exemplary. In his last game against Japan he was superb and he did wonderfully well for us in the summer against formidable opposition.
“His Glasgow form has been very good and I think that warrants a run. Not to do so discredits what we’re trying to do here. Jim has a slot because internationally he’s done the deed for us and he calls the lineout. That back row from four to eight provided a lot of debate and discussion, but that’s a good position to be in.”
As for any concern over Wilson’s off-field issues – the flanker, along with Ryan Grant and Maitland, faces charges of assaulting a Glasgow Hawks player – Johnson pointed out that he was not a judge but a rugby coach. “You don’t see me
wearing a wig. That’s for someone else to do. That’s not my issue, that one. That’s been ongoing and [Wilson] knows that my job is to pick a team from the players available and his form warrants that,” said the coach. “He is an athlete, fast and abrasive, and I like that, and he’s a good lineout forward too.
“Tim Swinson is also an underrated lineout player and he’s played [number] six in the past. He’s certainly physical, but he’s also mobile and I like that combination. It’s a mobile back row; we’ve got good legs there.
Swinno, Jim [Hamilton] and Wilson – they’re not afraid to go into the dark places and that’s a good thing. Some blokes have to bring torches, they go there naturally.”
Johnson is acutely aware of the size of the challenge he faces just to match his first Six Nations effort, which saw him help to steer the team out of the misery of the Tonga defeat and Andy Robinson’s resignation to achieve two wins and a third-place finish in the tournament.
Starting away to Ireland and at home to England just six days later is tough, but this is a combative squad and he is confident that it can draw on the experience of a developmental 2013 to become a more potent threat.
“I keep saying that the key is consistency in our performance. We see ten to 15 minutes of games against Australia or South Africa and you think ‘if we keep that together for an extra 40-50 minutes, we can beat this mob’.
“We’re growing as a team. We’re probably more experienced up front, but we have to be honest and look at ourselves at where we are in the world. This was viewed as what is the best team for this tournament. We want to be in this tournament. There’s some reward for work done in the past but it [selection] was not about broadening our base. It was what we deem to be the best team to carry us through the start of this tournament.
“There’s a lot of competition and hours spent comparing like for like. The nucleus [for 2015 World Cup] in the back division will emerge from this team and in the forwards I want guys to be sitting sweating in their jerseys, and if they feel that then we’ve got good competition for slots. In the last few years I don’t think there was that.”
That was a typically candid statement, but there remains the nagging feeling with Scotland that it is always easy to talk about ‘potential’ and ‘the future’ because it deflects from concerns over the team’s ability to win in the present.
Johnson did not dispute that, but, when asked if he was guilty of always promising “jam tomorrow”, he replied: “The jam will come because I’ll concentrate on the things that we can control, but I’ll give you a really good sandwich at the end.”
SCOTLAND TEAM TO PLAY IRELAND:
Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Sean Lamont, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw; Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Moray Low, Tim Swinson, Jim Hamilton, Ryan Wilson, Kelly Brown (capt), David Denton. Replacements: Pat MacArthur, Alasdair Dickinson, Geoff Cross, Richie Gray, Johnnie Beattie, Chris Cusiter, Matt Scott, Max Evans.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE