Scotland centre Sam Johnson admits Test rugby has been ‘a blur’

It was, at least until recently, an area of strength for Scotland, the centres. The national coach had, I remember counting, something like nine capped players to choose from. Not any longer.

Scotland centre Sam Johnson scores against Ireland at Murrayfield. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty
Scotland centre Sam Johnson scores against Ireland at Murrayfield. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty

It isn’t quite a case of Mother Hubbard’s cupboard but such is the number of players who are injured or out of form that 25-year-old Warrior Sam Johnson has unexpectedly found himself promoted into Scotland’s starting XV for the last three Tests. If you find that a little strange you are in good company because the amiable Aussie does too by the sounds of it.

“It started off as a blur and I was hanging out me arse against Italy,” he says with typical Australian candour. “ It’s the occasion you have to get used to, it’s not just a game of rugby.

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“Like I say against France, that was my first away game, to walk out in front of 78,000 people and I am some kid from south-east Queensland who used to muck around with me mates, to do something like that… that’s just as much as the game itself. Like anything in life it’s all experience, isn’t it? I really enjoyed it, couple more to go.”

What might Johnson be doing if he hadn’t upped sticks and made his way halfway around the world?

“I’d probably be playing local league at the club I grew up at in Ipswich [just outside of Brisbane], Brothers. Going out, probably, on Friday and Saturday night and rocking up hungover on Sunday but I’ve definitely changed,” he pleads, “I’ve changed!

“I’ve learned so much coming over here by myself through a) being an adult and b) the coaching staff. I decided to be professional, fitness, and not eating a bar of chocolate every day and nutrition and all that. I am going in the right direction.”

And so he is if his recent form is any guide. Johnson has let no one down and he scored a try against Ireland, which was nice, but things haven’t gone quite so smoothly since and Gregor Townsend’s team have two opportunities to salvage something . Given the Scottish record at Twickenham there is little doubt that Saturday against Wales represents Scotland’s best chance of doubling their victory tally.

Townsend’s midfield options are strictly limited. He could place Peter Horne at 12 and shuffle Johnson one wider but the Aussie sees himself as 12 and the outside centre is a highly specialist position, especially in defence.

But the Aussie insists that Scotland aren’t too far away. He talks about seeing space in these last two losses but the ball arriving just a little too late to exploit it; half a second is a long time in Test match rugby.

Townsend cultivates a cultivated image, a thoroughly modern coach, all carrot and calm but it is testimony to the pressure he is feeling this season that the boss lost his rag in Paris as Johnson recalls.

“We copped a bit of bollocking from the coach,” revealed the Aussie. “I don’t know what to say? Each individual is a different person but as a collective we have to come together for it. So far in these first few rounds I don’t think we’ve had a full 80 minutes as the results have shown.

“He’s a pretty relaxed guy. I wouldn’t say he was kicking and screaming but, for Gregor, he was letting us know where we need to improve and everything like that. It’s probably the least happy I have seen him… deservedly so, I think.”

The arrival of a Wales side with the scent of a Grand Slam in their nostrils is sure to ratchet up the pressure another notch. Scotland have put themselves into a position where they could have beaten Ireland and/or France but only the most one-eyed tartan patriot would claim that their team deserved to win either match. What has to change next weekend?

“That contact area, that aggression, just the consistency,” Johnson covers several bases. “Against Ireland, 95 per cent of the game we were up and into them but that 5 per cent at international level is when they scored their tries and it was the same against France. We did a lot of good stuff but then our kick chase one time wasn’t good enough on 12 minutes and they cut through and scored. Things like that at international level, you can’t get away with.

“You just look at Wales now and we know what the challenge is going to be. You have to be realistic, it’s going to be a huge challenge both Wales, then England away, but as professional rugby players we need to try to get the clarity right, we need to be aggressive out on the field.

“You are realistic of the challenge ahead and it is the hardest challenge, they are going for the Grand Slam and it seems like everyone knows what they are doing, they are on the same page, their coaching staff. But they are coming to BT Murrayfield, we have 40,000 or whatever [fans] and it’s going to be a great contest.

“Any team that rocks up, if you put them on the back foot and shock them, ‘oh sh*t, what are we going to do now?’ We need to go out there and… defence is going to be the key, just getting off the line continuously and making them kick on our terms.”

Wales have class, especially in the backs but Johnson reminds everyone that 14-man Glasgow beat a Scarlets team with players such as Jon Davies in their ranks only a matter of months ago and the regions’ poor form never seems to impact adversely on the national team.

“I watched them in November,” he recalls, “Wales give you two or three opportunities in each game to really hurt them and if you don’t take them it’s really hard to break them down.

“So we need to be on the ball and take those opportunities.”

The task facing Scotland next Saturday almost sounds simple, when he puts it like that.