Scotland in flux as Johnson strives to stop the bleeding
Scotlands Tim Visser tries to break through the Tonga defence during the November Test clash at Pittodrie in Aberdeen which the visitors won 21-15. photograph: ian mac nicol/ afp/getty
Three defeats in November and a very poor recent Six Nations record show the scale of the coach’s task
To say Scotland are in the doldrums is, given their recent past, to seriously understate a calamitous autumn. A November of dark days, dejection and three defeats, including to Tonga, culminating in the resignation of coach Andy Robinson and the installation of Scott Johnson as interim head honcho all adds up to a team in more flux than they care to admit.
Former Ospreys coach Johnson has the Six Nations to prove himself, which can be seen as pressure or a welcome opportunity on a clean canvas and the chance to put shape on a team that could pick up the wooden spoon if things continue in the same vein. Working from a base point of humiliation it’s difficult to see Johnson allowing them to fall backwards any further.
The 50-year-old Australian, who is also in charge for the summer tour, recently irked England when he scoffed at their wheedling over the spate of six injuries to front liners. But Johnson has had to deal with Ross Rennie, Chris Cusiter, John Barclay, Nick de Luca and Rory Lamont in sick bay. Given the sharply ironic exchange, it might have been the canny Aussie’s first shot in the game of minds as the Scots prepare to for Twickenham in their first outing.
“I don’t think selection going into the Scotland game is as simplistic as people perhaps think, on the back of the All Blacks game. We’ve got a lot of decisions to make,” said England coach Stuart Lancaster, to which Johnson, dripping with sarcasm, responded.
“That’s a sad story. Long injury list... am I getting emotional? That just leaves you with about another 40,000 players to pick from. We don’t have any injuries at all up where we are. No, no. We don’t get them. Never, never.”
Scotland are in a hole alright yet they do have several fine contenders for Lions spots this summer including back-row David Denton, lock Richie Gray, Greig Laidlaw and wing Tim Visser, to name but a few.
The uncapped Kiwi Sean Maitland remains with Johnson having to defend his selection. Maitland, who has a Scottish grandfather and uncle, has played at Twickenham before, scoring twice for the Crusaders when the Christchurch side played Super Rugby there. Were he to play it would give Scotland pace on both wings, possibly alongside Dutch-born Visser from Zeewolde, Flevoland, who qualified for Scotland by residence in the summer.
Kelly Brown, who captained Scotland in the autumn, gets the captaincy against England, but the Saracens backrow may not be always guaranteed his place and that could cause further change. But Johnson is gung-ho for the London encounter. Despite it being a fixture they haven’t won since 1983 he’s so competitive and wants to win that in his current state of mind he would “wrestle you for marbles”.
In the last four games between the sides when Robinson was in charge – three in the Six Nations and one in the World Cup – England have won three and drawn one. But the highest winning margin has been seven points and that was last year due, largely, to a try from a charge down.
The first match is also the Calcutta Cup, something the rest of the world can’t really figure. But for Scotland it’s another chance to have a go at their bigger, wealthier and, historically, more dominant neighbours and English teams have always experienced the harder hit, the extra tackle.
England also struggled against Australia and South Africa in the autumn because they found the opposition constantly in their faces. New Zealand gave them more space and put pressure on contact instead.
Scotland will aspire to be more like the Wallabies and Springboks in all their matches with additional fire and brimstone but must face the fact they have won only once, against Italy, in their last 10 Six Nations outings.
Six Nations pointers
Three defeats in the Autumn including a humiliating loss against Tonga tells you all you need to know about where Scotland are. The question is where they can go from being down and out on the basement floor and that is usually upwards.
The 30-year-old Saracens backrow Kelly Brown knows Scott Johnson likes doers rather than talkers. Against England in Twickenham in their first match, the work ethic of the Scottish captain and his fierce competitive qualities should shine through.
Richie Gray, the Sale Sharks lock, may be in the second row but plays a dynamic game that can trigger things to happen. A secondrow with pace, he likes to take up the ball and on his day is one of the best in the world. A Lions candidate.Six Nations squad
Backs: Max Evans (Castres) Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors) Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors) Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors) Peter Murchie (Glasgow Warriors) Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby)
Forwards: Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) Kelly Brown (Saracens) Geoff Cross (Edinburgh) David Denton (Edinburgh) Ross Ford (Edinburgh) Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh) Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) Richie Gray (Sale Sharks) Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors) Jim Hamilton (Gloucester) Robert Harley (Glasgow Warriors) Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) Pat MacArthur (Glasgow Warriors) Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors) Alasdair Strokosoch (Perpignan) .