4 into 10 won’t go: As the Six Nations looms, stand-off is a concern for Scotland coach Scott Johnson

THE short, barrel-chested Australian may not look particularly athletic now that he’s reached his half century but Scott Johnson was a very decent stand-off back in the day.

THE short, barrel-chested Australian may not look particularly athletic now that he’s reached his half century but Scott Johnson was a very decent stand-off back in the day.

That fact is worth bearing in mind when considering the following quote from Scotland’s interim head coach: “There are three positions on a rugby pitch where personality traits are important, that’s the number three [tighthead prop], number ten [stand-off] and number 15 [full-back].”

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So, as Scotland prepare for their Six Nations kick-off against England at Twickenham on Saturday, 2 February there is another coach, another viewpoint and another likely change in the playmaker role. It is a position that has plagued Scotland ever since Craig Chalmers was put out to grass at the tender age of just 31 with plenty of life left in his legs.

When quizzed about who he favours to start at stand-off against the English in just three weeks’ time, Johnson mentioned three candidates whose names are in the frame: Duncan Weir, Ruaridh Jackson and Tom Heathcote.

Missing from that list was Greig Laidlaw, who has started the last ten Tests in Scotland’s No.10 shirt.

Johnson, below right, freely admitted that the current crop of coaches see the little Jed man as a scrum-half first and would only plan to employ him one place wider in extremis, although having someone cover both half-back positions could give the selectors flexibility on the bench. That said, Laidlaw may still prove a necessity rather than a luxury for his accuracy in front of posts, just as Chris Paterson extended his shelf- life thanks to his expertise off the tee. Johnson certainly sounds like he is looking for an excuse to play Laidlaw.

“To be fair, I’ve said to Greig, I’m not going to lie here, I see Greig as a nine/ten rather than a ten/nine internationally and it’s important for him to know that, it’s important to us.

“One thing I will say about Greig Laidlaw is that he’s one hell of a kid and one hell of a competitor. The fact is we’d love to see him in that squad and he adds value to that team and we’re trying to find out where that is.”

As he spoke last week, Johnson mused out loud that he would like to see Duncan Weir get more game time at Glasgow and, as if by magic, the man who is potentially Scotland’s best kicking stand-off duly started the Warriors’ Heineken Cup match against Ulster in Belfast on Friday. But, this season, Weir has played second fiddle at No.10 to Ruaridh Jackson, who has found a rich vein of form just when it matters most.

But, if Jackson is finally showing the consistency required, at least for now, the Aberdonian is still about as reliable as an England footballer when aiming a penalty at goal. As with much of his game, Jackson’s kicking at the posts can be exceptional (as it was against Treviso in the league) and it can be hopeless (as it was when he butchered a simple enough penalty to earn his side at least a draw in Castres). Surely if Jackson starts at ten, then Laidlaw has to play scrum-half ahead of Glasgow’s Henry Pyrgos even if only for his ability to turn penalties into points.

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Johnson’s enigmatic reply to that poser was: “I think we’re not far off the path, are we?”

At least it sounded vaguely in agreement and that would leave Pyrgos and Weir to come off the bench, with the latter taking over the kicking duties if and when Laidlaw is subbed.

The coach also pondered two competing pressures on his selection thinking – form and the future. He said: “We want to reward form – but we have to acknowledge the future.”

It sounds as though Bath youngster Heathcote may just be held back for the latter.

“Is he [Heathcote] the answer to the future?” Johnson asked rhetorically. “He’s certainly one of the options for Scotland and that’s a good thing.”

The coach is eminently quotable even if he needs to work a little harder on consistency. At one point he insisted that Scotland would “duck and dive and see if we can overachieve” and a little while later argued: “You can duck and dive or you can focus on a plan. If you focus on a plan you have a better chance of getting what you want.”

Never mind the message, just enjoy the garrulous Aussie’s enthusiasm. The team certainly needs a bit of a lift after their 21-15 autumn Test humiliation against Tonga in Aberdeen.

Johnson’s new sidekick, Dean Ryan, was doing less ducking and more focusing so perhaps the two represent the ying and the yang of coaching, one conceptual, the other practical.

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Former England No.8 Ryan, below, the temporary forwards coach, mentioned three areas where Scotland need to improve markedly in order to make their mark and “bloody a few noses”.

They were: work at the breakdown; set-piece play; the ability to still be in games around the 60-minute mark.

That final point was something that Johnson also underlined. “It is consistency of performance that you need at this level,” reiterated the Aussie.

“We’ve got to be there or thereabouts, knocking on the door because, if you knock on the door often enough, it will open for you. If you are out of games it can’t happen, it never will. This is where we can focus.”

Johnson also talked at length about Scotland finding their own voice at Test level, rather than simply aping the big boys in the playground, and he surely has a point.

Previous coach Andy Robinson arguably asked his team to play a style of attacking rugby that was a little beyond their collective ability and, reading between the lines, Johnson and Ryan will take Scotland back to basics in the Six Nations in an effort to provide some success.

“The panacea for this group, the panacea for this country, doesn’t lie in trying to be New Zealand,” said Johnson. “It relies on trying to be what we are and doing it better. There were certain periods of the autumn games when we shone and the reality is we have to do more of it.”

Whatever happens on the field, the next few weeks promise to be thoroughly entertaining off it with Johnson’s hand on the tiller of the national team.

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After all, which other Six Nations coach would reply, when asked about his critics: “To be honest buddy I don’t give a rat’s arse what anyone’s saying. I don’t give a rat’s arse. It doesn’t worry me at all. How’s that?”

As Johnson himself is fond of saying, it is what it is. Whatever else you say about the Aussie, at least no one can accuse him of kowtowing to Murrayfield’s media managers.

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