Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow gamble paysoff as Sam Johnson earns Scotland start

The man who brought Sam Johnson to Glasgow three and a half years ago without seeing him play in the flesh spoke yesterday of the journey that has led to the centre starting for Scotland in the opening match of this year’s Six Nations.
Glasgow centre Sam Johnson will make his Scotland debut against Italy. Picture: Bruce White/SNS/SRUGlasgow centre Sam Johnson will make his Scotland debut against Italy. Picture: Bruce White/SNS/SRU
Glasgow centre Sam Johnson will make his Scotland debut against Italy. Picture: Bruce White/SNS/SRU

“I would have loved a wee flight out to Brisbane to see him but no, it was his videos,” said Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend with a smile after announcing his team for tomorrow’s home match against Italy.

Townsend was Glasgow coach when he signed centre Johnson in the summer of 2015 and has watched with 
satisfaction at a gamble that has steadily paid off.

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“He played a couple of games off the bench for [Super Rugby side] Queensland Reds and we looked at his rugby league footage as he had a rugby league background until he was 21,” continued the coach. “The element of his game that excited us most back then was his running ability.

“When we eventually got to work with him, as he had a shoulder injury when he first arrived in Scotland, his running lines and passing impressed us at training. His defence has got better and better. We have seen his running game come to the fore over the last season.”

A consistent line breaker, he has been rewarded for some excellent displays at Heineken Champions Cup level, which makes Townsend believe he is ready for the step to Six Nations, although the coach confessed that Johnson playing for Scotland was not at the front of his mind back in 2015.

“I thought he would improve Glasgow. I thought he would be a very good signing,” he said. “He was the type of player we were looking for, a 12 who can pass and defend well, and make good rugby decisions. He has done that over the past few years. That is part of the way we want to play rugby with Scotland so he fits in very well with that.”

Johnson has said that, when the call came, he decided to give Glasgow a try simply to put off what he believed would be the inevitable in a couple of years – returning home and working as a tradesman like his mates.

Johnson freely admits that he was overweight when he arrived and took time to settle but Townsend believes that initial struggle has added a layer of character to his rugby talent.

“He’s a top man. He’s laid back,” said the coach. “He was quiet in that first year but he came out of his shell. He was brought up in a place called Ipswich in Queensland country [25 miles south of Brisbane] which is very different to a big city like Glasgow, very different weather.

“That would be a big move for him away from the family. He had a dog that he missed. He got very friendly with the players at Glasgow and has grown in confidence. He enjoys being in Scotland and feels part of the country now and his mum and dad are coming over for the game.”

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Another Sam to have caught the keen eye of Townsend, though only from as far as Devon this time, is Sam Skinner, who will win his fourth Scotland cap tomorrow.

The Exeter Chiefs forward, whose dad is Scottish, was initially brought into the national set-up as a second row last year but will start again at blindside and Townsend talked through that decision.

“It’s more the balance of our team. It is a recognition of the Italian strengths but it’s more about how we get the best out of our pack,” he said. “Sam has been playing well. He has been playing in the back row for Exeter, probably 75 per cent of the time since the November Tests.

“When we first selected Sam at blindside flanker against South Africa it was partly down to the strength of the South Africa but also what we had seen from Sam in training. We felt he could adapt to that position. Since then he’s played regularly at six so it’s an easier decision for us.”

Townsend played down suggestions that centre Huw Jones, who has been a devastating and prolific weapon for Scotland in the past couple of years, hasn’t produced similar fireworks for Glasgow.

“Huw has been excellent for Scotland, most of his games he’s played very well and the game against South Africa was a recent case in point,” he said.

“Although Huw hasn’t played that much for Glasgow since November, that was partly due to the rib injury he picked up in the 1872 Cup game. We felt that in his last game coming off the bench fairly early against Saracens he looked in form, did some good things and we feel the way he’s trained he’s ready to go again with Scotland.

“Before the November Tests he was playing really well. I recall an excellent line break in the home game against Saracens and a week later against Cardiff he was outstanding when they [Glasgow] won with a bonus point.

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“Because of the timing with Huw coming over [to Glasgow in 2017], he didn’t play for them before the November Tests, he had the Currie Cup final [with Western Province] then straight into our campaign and played really well in the Six Nations.

“It’s sometimes difficult to be established at a club when you’re not there that often and other players grab opportunities during the November 
window and again during the Six Nations window.”