Scotland encouraged heading into the winter

ASKED how his team for the Six Nations was looking in the light of the Autumn Tests, Scott Johnson wisely refrained from saying too much on Saturday night.

Scotland full-back Sean Maitland tries to find a way past Australian openside flanker, Michael Hooper, supported by skipper Kelly Brown. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland full-back Sean Maitland tries to find a way past Australian openside flanker, Michael Hooper, supported by skipper Kelly Brown. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Two full months have yet to pass before Scotland take on Ireland in Dublin: two months in which a lot of rugby will be played, some players will lose form and others find it, and some get injured while others return from injury.

It would, of course, be foolish for Johnson to choose his starting 15 now. He wants more competition for places; he wants to see every eligible player fight for recognition in the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirect Pro 12; he longs for a few real quandaries in selection between players who are at the top of their game as we go into the New Year.

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All the same, the national coach is probably 80 per cent sure of his team to play Ireland, and perhaps 90 per cent certain of his squad. The chances of any uncapped wunderkind bursting on to the scene between now and Christmas are negligible; and even if one were to arrive, he would surely not be blooded in the opening rounds of the Six Nations, but would have to wait until the last game or two, when less, presumably, was at stake.

And even if some individuals do hit form for their clubs in the coming weeks after being less than impressive against Japan, South Africa and Australia, a serious question mark will still hang over them. Can they cut it at international level after being found out before? That’s what Johnson will want to know, when he and his assistants sit down in mid-January to select their squad. And that’s what the Autumn Tests were designed to show.

One thing we did learn over the last three weekends – and it is not a wholly positive or encouraging lesson – is that Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and Matt Scott remain three of our most important backs. Scott broke a hand against Japan and was ruled out of the last two matches, while Hogg and Visser played no part because of injury. Hogg returned to action for Glasgow on Friday night, Scott will be back soon, but Visser still faces a race against time to be ready for the Six Nations, having been told at the end of October that he could be out for up to four months with his broken leg.

Even if Visser returns sooner than expected, he will still need a few games to get back in shape for the Test arena. In that case, the back three for the Ireland match should be Hogg, Maitland and Sean Lamont, who came agonisingly close to scoring against the Wallabies and remains one of our most willing and dependable performers.

Teams who go on losing streaks – and Scotland have had a few of those over the years – can be tempted to indulge in self-pity rather than self-criticism. It is a temptation that Lamont has always steadfastly resisted, preferring instead some bracingly honest self-reflection. His versatility is another valuable aspect of his game: he can cover for the centres as well as the back three, and that should ensure him a place in the 23 even if he is left out of the starting line-up.

It is hard to see beyond Scott and Nick de Luca as the centre partnership, even if there is now increasing competition from the likes of Duncan Taylor. The Saracens back had to be taken off in the second half on Saturday after a head knock which appeared to leave him unsure of where he was, but he has done enough in recent games to merit consideration for the Six Nations. Visser’s return, however, could see him knocked down the pecking order. Meanwhile, Alex Dunbar, currently injured, will challenge for De Luca’s place on his return.

Johnson used all but one of his substitutes against the Wallabies, and the sole omission gave some clue to his future thinking. By leaving Ruaridh Jackson on the bench, the coach was effectively saying to Duncan Weir: Can you compete at Test rugby for 80 minutes? The answer was a solid yes.

Jackson will not be ruled out of Johnson’s plans at all, and if Scotland are chasing the game in Dublin, especially if conditions are dry, we can expect to see him come on for the last quarter. But Weir now looks the more dependable choice as the starting stand-off: more able to vary his game, more composed, and at least as able as his rival to address his own shortcomings.

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If there is a difficult choice for Johnson to make at 10, there should be no doubt when it comes to scrum-half. Greig Laidlaw is the man. Chris Cusiter still has a lot to offer, as he showed in one typically sniping run after he came off the bench, but Laidlaw’s measured tenacity is now an indispensable element of the side’s collective character.

Turning to the forwards, the Ireland game is on a Sunday, which means Euan Murray will be unavailable for religious reasons. Moray Low began at tighthead prop two days ago and should hold on to the jersey, with Ryan Grant packing down on the other side of the front row.

At hooker, Ross Ford remains some way ahead of the competition, which is not a good thing for anyone concerned. No matter how hardworking and conscientious Ford is, he could do with some genuine rivalry for the No 2 shirt. At present, the only real fight in the position is for the role of understudy, with Pat McArthur having the edge at present over Scott Lawson.

Thankfully, there is far more competition in the second row, the department of the squad in which Johnson comes closest to having an embarrassment of riches. Jim Hamilton, Richie and Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Al Kellock and Tim Swinson: all should be in the shake-up at the turn of the year.

A sainted Hamilton would not only be an automatic pick at lock, he would be among the first names in the whole team to be inked in. But the question for Johnson – one where he should perhaps swap notes with Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who has a similar issue to address with midfielder Scott Brown – is how much less-than-saintly behaviour from Hamilton can be tolerated.

Does the rugby coach follow Lennon on Brown and say that, without the “devil” in his make-up, Hamilton would be a lesser competitor? Does he simply put up with the odd loss of self-control, such as the infuriatingly futile offside early in the game that allowed Christian Lealiifano to open the scoring with a penalty, knowing that Hamilton will go on to perform with real impact in the loose as well as in the lineout? If he does, Hamilton is in for the Ireland match, probably alongside Richie Gray, with a real dilemma to be solved about cover on the bench.

In the back row, the principal question for Johnson is whether he can go into the Championship without a genuine openside, as he did in the Wallabies match. David Denton is a shoo-in at No 8 on the form he showed on Saturday, and Johnnie Beattie was almost as impressive. But can Beattie and captain Kelly Brown really operate as left and right flankers rather than openside and blindside?

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There are probably two answers to that. One: it depends on the opposition. And two: let’s wait until Ross Rennie has a few games for Edinburgh under his belt, then see what our options are.

Overall, though, the heartening thing for Johnson is that he does have options. Not as many as he would like, perhaps, but enough for him to think that if he gets his selection right, Scotland can do more than merely make up the numbers in the 2014 Six Nations.