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Video: Scott Johnson on Scotland’s Italy Test

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SCOTT Johnson was an enigma when he pitched up on Scottish shores, but the interim head coach believes that if there is one thing he will leave his squad with when it is handed over to Vern Cotter it will be a clear sense of belief.

The 50-year-old has worked with young players in his native Australia, Wales and now Scotland and, as he put the finishing touches to a side of injured bodies and stunned tour call-ups wrapped around an experienced core, to face Italy in their final Castle Lager Test in Pretoria this afternoon, he cited centre Matt Scott as a youngster with the potential to be world-class, if he could begin to believe it himself.

Scott scored his second Test try against South Africa on Saturday and generally gave Jean de Villiers, the Boks captain and a player renowned as world-class, the runaround. Johnson repeated the assertion made when he first came to Scotland last summer, that a glance at Scott’s statistics show him to have the same height, speed and strength as All Black centre Ma’a Nonu. So he is demanding Nonu-like displays.

Johnson said: “Matty is as big and as quick as Ma’a Nonu, and has some gears, and I can keep telling him that but as some stage he’s got to work out for himself that he belongs at the highest level. I haven’t coached too many centres with his natural gifts. He stood in the front of the queue genetic-wise, and we’ve put a lot of effort in to make sure his conditioning represented that. When I first got here I was as strong as him, and I said ‘c’mon, this kid is something special’, and so is Alex [Dunbar].

“We’ve got to understand that some of these kids in Scotland can be as good as anyone in the world. What’s common I’ve found out is that as soon as players run on the field and look at the opposition they go ‘jeez, they’re big’, but guess what? The opposition are thinking the same.

“Matty was up against a quality 12 on Saturday [Jean de Villiers] who has played a lot of Test matches and done plenty of big things on the world stage, and did he lose anything by comparison? I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

Coming through a youth system inferior to the leading nations and suffering rollercoaster rides with Edinburgh is unlikely to have helped Scott to believe that he is or can be world-class, but the centre admits that he is learning a bit about self-belief on this tour.

“Scott has spoken to me a lot about that before, about believing in myself, and it’s maybe something I’ve not been as good at as I should have been,” he said. “I’m quite a modest person, both off the field and on it I suppose.

“Both coaches, Matt Taylor in defence and Scott in attack, have been trying to get a bit of edge on me and a bit of nastiness coming out, and it’s something that I’m working on certainly. But I think guys like Ma’a Nonu are great defenders and great at the breakdown and that’s an area that I’m working hard, and I think it will take me to the next level being able to add that to my game.

“So it’s good to have that sort of praise from the coach because Nonu is a fantastic player, and it just probably gives me a more motivation to work harder on the areas of my game that he’s probably better at.

“It’s kind of against our nature isn’t it, to be blowing your own trumpet. South Africans I think are the masters at that. They are very confident people and we’ve noticed that, and it’s not necessarily because they’re any bigger, stronger or faster but they believe in themselves.

“So I’m starting to believe in myself, that I can make an impact on the world stage. Playing against guys like Jean de Villiers and coming out with pass marks is always a positive step, so we’ll see. I’ll keep working hard.”

Test matches against the southern hemisphere’s big three will become less frequent over the next decade for Scotland, or at least Test series will, after the SRU decided last year, with Andy Robinson’s agreement, to turn down three-Test tours to the major nations. As a result, Scotland have dropped off the major touring map for the foreseeable future, and will look to pick up single Tests against the big nations each summer.

Early plans for next year include a tour of three continents and Tests against Canada, the USA, Argentina and the Springboks again. This autumn Scotland will face Japan, Australia and the Boks at Murrayfield and Johnson believes that the top Tests provide the route to restoring Scotland’s competitive edge on the world stage.

“One of the issues we confronted with Wales, Steve Hansen and I, was that we didn’t want to avoid the big boys. We wanted to play them more regularly. Prior to that there had been a propensity in Wales to play the lesser-known nations, to win and feel good about themselves, but we wanted to confront the big boys to de-mystify them a little bit and say ‘look guys, you can play against these guys’.

“Scott has plenty desire but he doesn’t know how good he could be. Saturday could have been a great wake-up call for him. He’s a bright kid, not the finished article, but this team can be built around the back of kids like him because he’s articulate, bright and physical, and has a bit of responsibility playing in the midfield, and he has no excuses athletically.

“And that’s what we’re trying to create with this squad, the belief that we can be good at something if we believe in ourselves.”

Today is a perfect opportunity to test that. Italy coach Jacques Brunel has responded to poor showings by his team in the past two weekends by handing debuts to two new players and shuffling his deck, with a bench of experienced stars waiting to come on in the second half, so Scotland need to start well. The intensity and commitment that the team showed against South Africa lifted them to a competitive level, similar to that showed against the Wallabies a year ago in pouring rain, and it defied the inexperience in the squad, but can they repeat it?

“It’s easy to get up for a game against South Africa in South Africa,” acknowledged Scott, “but now Italy and ourselves are both searching for our first win and this will be a good test of whether we’re able to go out and play as well as we did against South Africa. A game like this has come around at a good time to test where we are.”

HOW THEY LINEUP

Quadrangular tournament

At Loftus Versfeld, Today, 1:15pm

Live on Sky Sports 1

SCOTLAND

15 Peter Murchie

14 Tommy Seymour

13 Alex Dunbar

12 Matt Scott

11 Sean Lamont

10 Tom Heathcote

9 Greig Laidlaw (capt)

1 Alasdair Dickinson

2 Scott Lawson

3 Euan Murray

4 Tim Swinson

5 Al Kellock

6 David Denton

8 Johnnie Beattie

7 Alasdair Strokosch

Subs

16 Fraser Brown

17 Jon Welsh

18 Moray Low

19 Grant Gilchrist

20 Rob Harley

21 Henry Pyrgos

22 Duncan Taylor

23 Tim Visser

ITALY

15 Andrea Masi

14 Leonardo Sarto

13 Luca Morisi

12 Alberto Sgarbi

11 Giovanbattista Venditti

10 Alberto Di Bernardo

9 Tobias Botes

1 Matias Aguero

2 Davide Giazzon

3 Martin Castrogiovanni

4 Leandro Cedaro

5 Marco Bortolami

6 Joshua Furno

8 Sergio Parisse (capt)

7 Robert Barbieri

Subs

16 Leonardo Ghiraldini

17 Alberto De Marchi

18 Lorenzo Cittadini

19 Antonio Pavanello

20 Alessandro Zanni

21 Alberto Chillon

22 Gonzalo Canale

23 Luke McLean

Follow David Ferguson on Twitter for the latest from Scotland’s South Africa tour

 

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