Rugby World Cup: Sam Johnson set to partner Duncan Taylor at centre against Ireland
When it was put to Sam Johnson at today’s press conference in Tokyo that it seemed certain it would be he and Duncan Taylor that forms the Scotland midfield in Sunday’s World Cup opener he didn’t deny it, before hastily adding a caveat.
In the long build-up to the tournament, which kicks off tonight as hosts Japan face Russia in the same pool as the Celtic nations, centre had been seen as one of the most competitive areas in selecting the 31-man squad.
Now that it has, the pairing of Glasgow man Johnson and Saracens’ Taylor has always seemed the nailed on choice for the starting XV which head coach Gregor Townsend will reveal on Friday morning UK time.
The latter has only played two Tests in over two years, in the latest warm-up series, after battling two successive season-wrecking injuries, while Johnson is in the groove after a breakthrough second half of 2019 which has seen him rack up six caps and three tries since his debut against Italy at the start of the Six Nations.
“Dunc is easy to talk to on and off the field,” said the Queensland-born centre, who qualified for Scotland on the three-year residency rule after moving to Glasgow Warriors in 2015.
“He is a laid back type of guy, being a bit more mature and around the game a wee while he is a calming influence. In saying that I am rooming with [now Gloucester centre] Chris Harris who could potentially be playing at 13 and he has been really good, over the summer especially.
“Then there is Pete Horne who I go to a lot for advice and to talk through different scenarios of what to do. We will see what Gregor and his coaching team come up with at the weekend.”
A lot of the team to face the world No 1 Irish picks itself but there remain a few areas of debate. Will Townsend stick with 52-cap experience of Tommy Seymour on the opposite wing from Sean Maitland, or will he harness the thrilling momentum created by man of the moment, young Darcy Graham?
Greig Laidlaw would appear to have edged ahead of Ali Price but not to the point where the No 9 jersey was hung over his shoulders as a matter of course.
With flanker Jamie Ritchie now seemingly highly unlikely to feature as he continues to recover from a cheekbone injury, most people’s money would be on the dynamism of Blade Thomson to get the nod over Ryan Wilson at blindside, alongside No 8 John Barclay and openside Hamish Watson.
Over in the Irish camp there had been an even stronger glint of hope that their Lions pair of Rob Kearney and Keith Earls could shake off injury but that now seems to be receding.
Back on top of the world rankings after years of high performance now, the fact Joe Schmidt can bring in players of the calibre of Garry Ringrose for the hamstring victim Robbie Henshaw at centre, Jordan Larmour for full-back Kearney and Andrew Conway on the wing in place of Earls, says all you need to know about the test that awaits Scotland.
Looking at the new centre pairing of Ringrose and Bundee Aki, Johnson said: “They are two different players, Ringrose his agility around the pitch, being able to break the tackles, whereas Aki is probably more of a direct runner. They are both really good operators in their own right.
“Conway and Larmour are massive threats ball in hand but we’ll try to exploit them in different avenues. We’ll be looking at a bit of film this weekend, even though there are some really good payers who are injury doubts, they would be replaced by Conway and Larmour, who are just as good.
“If you give them a bit of time and space they’ll do a bit of damage. We’ll look at how we want to play the game tactically and eliminate that threat. We’ll see what happens.”
Johnson scored his first Test try in the Six Nations loss to Ireland at BT Murrayfield in February but knows their players well enough from the Guinness Pro14.
“Because they are a Home Nation I am probably a bit more familiar with the style of rugby they want to play,” he said. “It is going to be a tough contest. With all these rankings, I don't know how many No 1s there were during the summer Tests, so you take that with a pinch of salt but we all know they are class operators.
“But we are now in a different country, a neutral venue. That evens the playing field a bit more.”
Follow Duncan Smith in Japan on Twitter @Duncan_Smith