As any journalist unfortunate enough to fall foul of a cutting press conference quip knows all too painfully, Scott Johnson is no stranger to a spot of mischief. And the six changes the Australian has made to Scotland’s starting lineup to face South Africa on Sunday have certainly sparked plenty of debate.
Gone are last week’s man-of-the-match Tim Swinson and last week’s captain Kelly Brown. A hefty pack has been chosen, and the one enforced switch sees Duncan Taylor replace the injured Matt Scott at inside centre.
Yet, facing the best scrum in world rugby, Johnson’s front-row choice of Al Dickinson, Ross Ford and Moray Low may have nudged mischievousness beyond the boundary of flippancy and towards a gaping chasm of danger. Dickinson is a fine player in the loose, but his scrummaging is suspect to say the least. Ford continues to fall short of form and confidence at test-match level, and Low is viewed as something of a penalty-magnet.
The scrum will be a key battleground on Sunday – one in which the Scots must gain both parity, and a solid platform from which to play. Ford needs desperately to get to grips with the requirement to strike for the ball under the new IRB protocols. It was a tactic that backfired on several occasions against a lightweight Japanese eight, and it will do so spectacularly if employed again this weekend. Scotland, particularly minus their two best-scrummaging props, won’t be able to march over the ball.
Nor can they afford to yield easy penalties and possession to such high-calibre opposition. Such is the way of modern-day scrummaging, the side deemed to be in the ascendancy by the officials tends to benefit from the bulk of the more marginal decisions. It’s tough to see Johnson’s bold front-row choices enjoying any sort of ascendancy over their formidable Springbok counterparts.
Jim Hamilton is a more reassuring presence in that respect. As well as a considerable physical boost to both scrum and lineout, he won’t allow the Scots to be bullied by their sizeable opponents around the pitch. At least when the scrum breaks up in disarray he’ll be around to slap someone.
The back-row has a nice balance to it, with the return of John Barclay and the dropping of Brown. The deposed captain is at times rendered a square peg in a round hole at openside, depending on the style the Scots implement. As such, the presence of an out-and-out number seven will be a significant boost.
It’s a game where the breakdown is crucial, and one ideally suited to the abrasiveness of Al Strokosch and Dave Denton over the flamboyance of Johnnie Beattie. It’s also a game in which Tim Swinson would be expected to shine once more, but Johnson seems keen to see what Jonny Gray can produce in a test-match environment.
The Springboks have a trio of loose forwards that ranks among the best in the world, particularly when it comes to that all-important breakdown. That trio becomes a quartet with the work of hookers Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss, and it’s an area in which the Scots must take great care. Put simply, the ball needs to be secured quickly, and gotten the hell out of there.
An important point to note here is that for all Johnson has named a beefy pack; Scotland cannot afford to take the Boks on at their own game. Television mics picked up Greig Laidlaw instructing his forwards to carry one-off the rucks last week, commanding them to “punch again, punch again”.
This is well and good on slow ball against a side like Japan. However, if they fail to “punch” properly on Sunday, and – as they did at times last week – have forwards taking the ball flat and static too close to the gain line, they’ll be punched backwards an awful lot harder. The sort of primal, one-dimensional arm-wrestle this game could descend into will result in only one outcome.
With that in mind, I’d hope to see the ball kept away from contact where possible. Weak carries and isolated runners will be picked off and devoured by Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen or their respective deputies. The Springboks are adept at forcing turnovers and penalties at the breakdown, but also masters of holding attackers off the ground, allowing a maul to form and the ball to become unplayable.
Ruaridh Jackson has been backed again at fly-half, and he needs to exert a more controlling influence on proceedings than he did last week. With Morne Steyn ruled out, it’s likely he’ll be lining up opposite the talented (Scot- qualified) Pat Lambie. And talented though he may be, he’s someone the Scots should be targeting in attack with big runners off first-phase ball.
Quick ball, as always, will be key, and rather than “punching”, I’d like to see possession reach Jackson and Taylor earlier on in phase-play. Let’s shift the point of attack, keep the ball moving, and not allow ourselves to be sucked into that stodgy grunt-fest.
Equally important is the accuracy and intelligence of kicking from the half-backs. Loose, broken-field possession for the South African back-three is a recipe for disaster. It’s worth remembering that, under Heyneke Meyer, the Boks have become a supreme expansive attacking threat beyond their traditional tight, hard-nosed philosophy. Discipline and composure in defence is vital, as lapses such as those by Jackson and Tommy Seymour will be capitalised on this week in a way the Japanese were not always capable of.
Meyer is widely expected to name a number of fringe players in his starting lineup for Sunday. However, given his “fringe players” include the likes of Bakkies Botha, Siya Kolisi and Gio Aplon, one gains an appreciation of the challenge facing the Scots.
It will be interesting to see how Johnson’s testing and tinkering stands up to that test.
Scotland team to play South Africa at Murrayfield on Sunday 17 November, kick-off 3pm
15 Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors) 6 caps, 1 try, 5 points
14 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors) 3 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
13 Nick De Luca (Edinburgh Rugby) 39 caps, 1 try, 5 points
12 Duncan Taylor (Saracens) 4 caps
11 Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors) 80 caps, 12 tries, 60 points
10 Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors) 22 caps, 3 conversions, 2 penalties, 2 drop-goals, 18 points
9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby) 22 caps, 3 tries, 23 conversions, 49 penalties 208 points CAPTAIN
1 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) 28 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
2 Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) 69 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
3 Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) 21 caps
4 Richie Gray (Castres) 32 caps, 1 try, 5 points
5 Jim Hamilton (Montpellier) 48 caps, 1 try, 5 points
6 Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan) 36 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
7 John Barclay (Scarlets) 42 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
8 David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) 15 caps
16 Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons) 38 caps, 2 tries, 10 points
17 Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors) 11 caps
18 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby) 23 caps, 1 try, 5 points
19 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors) uncapped
20 John Beattie (Montpellier) 24 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
21 Chris Cusiter (Glasgow Warriors) 62 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
22 Duncan Weir (Glasgow Warriors) 6 caps, 1 try, 2 conversions, 9 points
23 Max Evans (Castres) 35 caps, 3 tries, 15 points
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzere (France) and Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland).