SCOTLAND coach Scott Johnson has urged his players to believe they can still win the RBS Six Nations title and dismiss the traditional fears of a wooden spoon after their record victory in the tournament.
The Scots could yet finish bottom of the pile if they fail to build on Saturday’s 34-10 win over Italy, as the Italians opened their championship with a stunning victory over France.
But, if Johnson’s men were to use their Murrayfield performance as a springboard and win their next two games, they would go into the final round of matches with a chance of taking the championship.
“We’re back in this tournament,” said Johnson. “We’re in it up to our eyeballs. And we want to win this championship.
“There’s still plenty left out on that pitch and we are going to keep improving. This result was a step in the right direction.
“Ireland will be here in two weeks and they will be ready to play because they will want to win this championship, too. And, for us, beating Italy will count for nothing if we don’t get the next part right. But, instead of worrying about the woes of last week [a 38-18 defeat to England], we can worry about winning the tournament.”
The Australian joined the Scotland set-up last summer as an assistant to then head coach Andy Robinson and the squad claimed a first-ever clean sweep on a southern hemisphere tour, beating Australia, Fiji and Samoa.
But they finished the year as they had started it, with a run of losses. When Robinson quit in November after a loss to Tonga, Johnson was asked to take the reins for the Six Nations and summer tour to South Africa.
Along with forwards coach Dean Ryan and defence specialist Matt Taylor, Johnson has given the players belief that that they can compete with the best in the world if they execute the basics better. He has also brought a searing honesty to the assessment of the players. And his side responded to the opening day stuffing at Twickenham with their first four-try win in the Six Nations in a decade.
Johnson was quick to put his comments into context by insisting that his side had not suddenly turned from wooden spoon favourites to champions-elect. But he insisted that Scotland have enough talent to compete with remaining opponents, Ireland, Wales and France.
After the first two rounds, England, who won in Dublin yesterday, lead the table on four points from two wins, with Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy all on two and France, the pre-tournament favourites, bottom with no points.
Scotland host Ireland on Sunday 24 February then welcome Wales to Edinburgh on 9 March, before finishing with a trip to Paris the following week. France next go to Twickenham for a match with the potential to throw the title race wide open.
For Johnson, the key to Scottish success lies in the ability to contest the tackle area more effectively and he urged the whole Scottish rugby community to take up the challenge and address what he termed a national problem.
“The game has changed and the tackle area is now a huge part of how teams succeed,” he said. “We showed some potency against Italy but I keep saying that we, as a country, need to get this part of the game right.
“We’re not deluding ourselves [after one Six Nations win] because we watch the pro teams. And the autumn – we weren’t good at it there and we came up against two formidable sides and got toasted.
“That [beating Italy] was a good start, but we are still a long way from where we need to be.”
Johnson is unlikely to make changes for the Ireland game with Alasdair Strokosch out for a month. Experienced openside flanker John Barclay will be back in the frame having returned from injury for Glasgow against Zebre yesterday but, with Kelly Brown, Rob Harley and Johnnie Beattie among Scotland’s stars against Italy, he may have to settle for a place on the bench.
Players reporting knocks yesterday included centre Matt Scott (ribs/neck), stand-off Ruaridh Jackson (shoulder bruising), scrum-half Greig Laidlaw (dead leg) and hooker Ryan Grant (significant hip bruising) but there is time before the build-up for Ireland gets into full flow. Jon Welsh is back to fitness and ready to step in for Grant if he struggles to recover, with Alasdair Dickinson, Ed Kalman, Geoff Cross and Moray Low also all fit.
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