Scotland coach Townsend backs Sam Johnson to shine on debut
Kerr and Graham in line for potential debuts in Six Nations opener against Italy
Glasgow’s Sam Johnson makes his debut for Scotland at centre against Italy at Murrayfield. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Scotland v Italy, Murrayfield, Saturday 2.15pm (Virgin 1, BBC 1)
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has backed Sam Johnson to take the step up to international rugby in his stride when the Australian-born centre debuts against Italy in their Six Nations opener at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Johnson (25) played two Super Rugby games for the Queensland Reds before being lured to Glasgow Warriors by Townsend in 2015.
Since taking up the Scotland reins two years ago, Townsend has been impressed by Johnson’s ability to develop his game from raw former Rugby League recruit to an international standard inside centre.
“Sam has got better every season, once he got more used to the demands of professional rugby,” Townsend told reporters.
“He hadn’t played that much rugby prior to coming over to Scotland but each time he’s been given an opportunity to play at a higher level he’s done really well.
“I thought he would improve Glasgow. He was the type of player we were looking for, a 12 who can pass and defend well and make good rugby decisions. That is part of the way we want to play rugby with Scotland so he fits in very well with that.”
Johnson has been frustrated by injuries this season, but gets a chance to partner Huw Jones in the midfield in the absence of regular number 12 Pete Horne.
“He’s timed his return to playing well and has managed to get some game time before the championship,” Townsend said.
Johnson is not the only potential new cap, with hooker Jake Kerr and loose-forward Gary Graham named on the bench.
The inclusion of Graham is notable as the flanker has been part of past England training camps without ever winning a cap.
“Jake has also adapted to our environment really well with us and has earned his place in the squad,” Townsend says.
“He’s a hard worker, very solid around the lineout and, given the type of game we could be playing, those factors could be very important.
“Gary has an outstanding work-rate and takes the game to the opposition both in defence and ball carrying.”
Italy captain Sergio Parisse has been recalled to their side after injury. The 35-year-old number eight, who missed the November internationals, will make a record 66th Six Nations appearance, putting him one ahead of Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll who played 65 times in the tournament between 2000 and 2014.
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini is set to make his 100th Italy appearance.
SCOTLAND: S Hogg (Glasgow); T Seymour (Glasgow), H Jones (Glasgow), S Johnson (Glasgow), B Kinghorn (Edinburgh); F Russell (Racing 92), G Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne, capt); A Dell (Edinburgh), S McInally (Edinburgh), W Nel (Edinburgh); B Toolis (Edinburgh), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh); S Skinner (Exeter), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow).
Replacements: J Kerr (Leicester), J Bhatti (Glasgow), S Berghan (Edinburgh), G Graham (Newcastle), J Strauss (Sale Sharks), A Price (Glasgow), A Hastings (Glasgow), C Harris (Newcastle).
ITALY: J Hayward (Benetton); A Esposito (Benetton), L Morisi (Benetton), T Castello (Zebre), M Campagnaro (Wasps); T Allan (Benetton), T Tebaldi (Benetton); A Lovotti (Zebre), L Ghiraldini (Toulouse), S Ferrari (Benetton); D Sisi (Zebre), D Budd (Benetton); S Negri (Benetton), A Steyn (Benetton), S Parisse (Stade Francais, capt).
Replacements: L Bigi (Benetton), C Traore (Benetton), T Pasquali (Benetton), F Ruzza (Benetton), J Tuivati (Zebre), G Palazzani (Zebre), I McKinley (Benetton), E Padovani (Zebre).
Referee: Luke Pearce (England).