Scott Johnson’s home spun similes added a bit of fun to last year’s Championship; they were a break from Robinson’s dour defensive drones. However, a year on and the charm has started to wear thin for some fans. Johnson has questions to answer regarding selections and the direction of the national side but he continues to hide behind obscure antipodean wisdom. It’s surely only a matter of time before he goes the full Swiss Tony and compares Scottish defence tactics to making love to a beautiful woman.
But Johnson will soon be off like a bucket of prawns in the noonday sun, regenerating into Vern Cotter. We could cast Johnson as John Hurt’s War Doctor. A temporary but necessary incarnation who must carry out unspeakable acts for the greater good. Underneath the jokes about bikinis and statistics Johnson has always been clear that a large part of his role is to increase the pool of players Cotter will be able to pick from. That goes some way to explaining the reasons behind some of his decisions but just as soon as you think you’ve got a handle on his thinking he does something to contradict it. He wants to increase the pool of players for Cotter but neither Chris Fusaro nor Roddy Grant look any closer to being capped despite Ross Rennie – who’s in the squad – being Bristol bound and broken.
There were more surprises when the team to face Ireland was announced on Wednesday. There may be the odd quibble with the first XV but the lack of a recognised 10 on the bench could be the most controversial decision of Johnson’s tenure so far. We’ll look at the decision to pick Weir ahead of Jackson in a moment but the question remains as to who will replace Weir in the event of a planned or forced substitution. Will Laidlaw shift from 9? Will Hogg move forward from 15? Or will Scott come off the bench? Scott has played 10 at club level and both Laidlaw and Hogg have experience of playing there at a higher level but not one of them has done so with any regularity.
We are where we are with the team Johnson has selected, and we’ve already shown the Blog team are poles apart in our views on a starting XV. Thoughts turn now to Ireland and so it’s time for a return to our regular series of articles looking at how Scotland can put away the opposition. Unlike the Autumn series we’re not looking at players on their last chance as this writer nearly had a breakdown seeing Ross Ford’s name on the team sheet each week. So what do this Scotland team have to do to beat Ireland?
1. Front up*, up front
Euan Murray would never have been available for this match regardless of his poor lumberjack skills, and so Moray Low was always likely to start. Low did okay in the autumn and held his own in the scrum without causing the opposition too many problems. Scotland are in desperate need of a tighthead prop capable of putting his opposite number under pressure. The promising Scott Wilson is now tied to England, Jon Welsh has been cast aside to the A team and Girth is at risk of being forgotten by the Edinburgh coaches. WP Nel will be eligible come the World Cup, but that still leaves Scotland a couple of injuries shy of annihilation.
Grant, Ford and Low are in for a tough time regardless of which Irish front three is announced on Friday. There’s no doubting the shunt that Swinson and Hamilton will add, but Grant and Low must win the wrestling match up front and Ford will need to get his positioning right. They cannot afford to give away penalties and it would be suicide to test the patience of Craig Joubert. Scotland’s victory last year was down to the inexperienced Paddy Jackson’s kicking more than anything else. Johnny Sexton is unlikely to be as charitable with the boot.
* mentioning it in commentary will incur the wrath of the 6N drinking game though…
2. Possession means nothing
Both of Scotland’s wins in last year’s Championship were achieved without them seeing much of the ball. Scotland had 38% possession against Italy and a measly 29% against Ireland. Contrast that against the recent losses to South Africa (50%), Australia (58%) and Samoa (62%).
The selection of Weir ahead of Jackson suggests Scotland will be looking to gain territory through the boot and despite the misgivings of some fans this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That is so long as Weir finds touch, doesn’t do anything rash, and big Jim & Co. can cause the havoc they desire in the Irish lineout.
The Scottish lineout is another matter altogether. Once a solid attacking platform something has gone very wrong in recent years. What is not clear is whether that’s down to Ross Ford’s yips, poor communication, mistimed jumps or a combination of the three. In this team they have potential jumpers all across the back 5 so Scotland might be hoping to soak up pressure, win some penalties and get territory through Weir. If the lineout isn’t firing this game plan will quickly fall apart under the fierce attention of Paul O’ Connell. The lack of a recognised 10 on the bench suggests Johnson has no plan B : territory or nothing.
In the past weeks Scott Johnson has talked about the mentality of Scottish players. Scotland are no better and no worse than any other team, he says. Winning is contagious. Keep knocking on the door and the door will eventually open. All well and good but there is millennia of Scottish reticence to overcome and that takes time.
It’s partly a defence mechanism amongst Scots to underplay our abilities. It saves face in the event of a defeat. We never said we were going to win anyway. We gave it our best shot. The SRU’s announcement that it was targeting a World Cup win in 2015 was ridiculed by many but then what is the point of entering a tournament if not to win? Apart from the All Blacks, Scotland have shown they are capable of putting top sides under pressure. What is lacking is consistency.
This is an ageing Ireland team. They are still capable of sparking into life occasionally but are by no means the force they once were. Scotland have no reason to be in awe of them. A poor Edinburgh side stuck 28 points past Munster in September and Glasgow have beaten three of the four Irish sides since the start of the season including an away victory at Ulster.
4. Tackle battle
An entire book could be written about the famous Irish “choke” tackle. It’s been around for a while now and yet it continues to cause opposition teams all manner of problems. Regardless of what the Scottish coaches might say Kelly Brown is not an out and out 7. He may have played there and acquitted himself with aplomb for both Saracens and Scotland but he is not a fetcher. There is no doubting his commitment and tackling but he doesn’t get into the sort of positions that allow him an opportunity to steal the ball.
With the exception of England it’s hard to think of a top ranked side playing without a proper openside. Wales have been known to play with two.
Unless Johnson is trying to develop his own unique brand of rugby and hoping everyone else joins in, Scotland appear to lack a ball winner. Johnson continues to put square pegs in areas where there are no holes, contradicting his claim that he is merely widening the pool of players for Cotter to choose from.
5. Play for 80 plus minutes
That New Zealand win. The Irish beaten in the 82nd minute. New Zealand camped in their own 22 with 30 seconds left on the clock.
Johnson has talked about there being two games. One in the first 60 minutes and a second in the last 20. Scotland struggle to claw their way back into games when they’re behind. Whether that’s a lack of a tactical plan B or player mentality is open to debate but it is an issue that needs to be overcome and one Johnson is aware of. Johnson seems to believe the solution lies in changing the mentality of the players. That’s something only a few have achieved down the years, so good luck to him.
Johnson has had plenty of time to turn heads and increasingly looks as effective as a drunk on a street corner shouting at the wind and trying to make it change direction. Similarities have been drawn between Cotter and the Great Jim Telfer.
If that’s true the summer can’t come fast enough.
P.S. Scott: this is what a blog is.