Monday 19 February 2018

Johnson vows to mix it up and make some 'jam'

Scotland out-half Duncan Weir will be aiming to stifle Johnny Sexton's influence
Scotland out-half Duncan Weir will be aiming to stifle Johnny Sexton's influence
David Kelly

David Kelly

Scott Johnson certainly didn't disappoint when it came to dispensing the one-liners at yesterday's Scotland team announcement.

But the laughing stopped when he listed the 15 names to start against Ireland this weekend.

With a rusty out-half chosen to kick first and ask questions later, not to mention three sturdy No 8s in his back-row – and another on the bench – the austere Scottish game-plan would unsubtly, on the face of it, point more towards Braveheart than Billy Connolly.

Aptly enough, the four new faces Johnson has drafted into his starting XV are all Warriors – of the Glasgow variety, that is – and with a bench featuring almost 250 caps, there is surprising strength in depth in the visiting panel.

So much so that many feel that Johnson has erred with his line-up – beginning with the selection of an out-half, Duncan Weir, with barely a few minutes of rugby behind him this year, to the wholly unbalanced back-row with not a groundhog in sight.


Despite flattering noises from Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss, who suggests that Weir's playmaking abilities may unlock several attacking routes behind the scrum, the emphasis would instead seem to be on the one-dimensional.

Scotland's approach in the opening hour will be to keep the game alive for them – and in doing so slowly draining the life from it for everyone else – before springing for a final-quarter burst to the line.

It is a strategy that has, in fairness, worked in three of their recent meetings with Ireland.

"If there was any other coach of the other teams sitting here they'd be telling you this was a must-win game," said Johnson.

"Look at world rankings and the like, we have to keep moving forward because the opposition are getting better too.

"I keep saying that the key to this is consistency in our performance. We see 10-15 minutes of games against Australia or South Africa when you think, 'if we keep that together for an extra 40-50 minutes, we can go and beat this mob'.

"We have to get consistent, and when that happens there will be a growth, the nucleus of this will turn into a very good side.

"If we get consistent and we're in the game, scoreboard pressure favours us. And that's what we need to do, we've got to keep in every game and we have the ability to do that because we've got the ability to go the length of the field."

The biggest surprise is Weir edging Ruaridh Jackson at 10, despite being largely eclipsed by his Glasgow rival for all but an hour in 2014.

"It was a tough one, we had a look and we quite like the skill-set that Duncan brings to the team, stuff we don't have across the board," said Johnson. "He has added some things to his game and we think that's a really good combination with Greig Laidlaw.

"He's developing as a player. It's good to have competition there. We'd like to see one of them command a spot at their region but that hasn't occurred. We've gone with what we think is the best fit for us.

"I say this without disrespect, but when I first coached against (Weir), I saw a fat little kid. I couldn't believe he was playing rugby at that level, in that position especially.

"His body has changed dramatically, he's deceptively quick and he has added a real thrust in his attacking game.

"He was known as a big kicker of the ball and could control a game that way. But I think he's added things to his game, he's changed his body and we like that.

"We want consistency now. If he can't do those things, he's not a 10; we expect him to boss people around."

The returning Stuart Hogg, lightning quick at full-back, can finish the game at 10 if needed, while Sean Maitland – "like a case of my wine, gets better with age" – can strike from the back three too.

Ryan Wilson, despite an impending court case for an alleged assault, snares a back-row berth.

"You don't see me wearing a wig, so that's for someone else to do," said Johnson, referring to the player's off-field distractions. "That's not my issue, that one."

Scotland haven't won an away match in this competition first-up since 1998 – also in Dublin – and are historically slow starters in the championship, winning just one opening game since five nations became six in 2000.

They have always planned jam tomorrow without ever delivering, but colourful Aussie Johnson is promising a sticky situation for the Irish this weekend.

"I can only speak on where I am in developing this squad," added Johnson. "We want to be competitive and develop the squad. It's a useful back-line in terms of experience.

"We're growing as a team, and we're probably experienced up front, but we have to be honest and look at ourselves at where we are in the world.

"The jam will come because I'll concentrate on the things that we can control and then I will give you a really good sandwich at the end, okay?"

On Sunday specifically, Johnson reckons: "It'll be a fast, open game. Where they left off against New Zealand is where they'll start but without the goal at the end. How's that?"

Johnson's aim is to prevent Ireland completing what they couldn't against the All Blacks and, summing up his selection, Johnson enigmatically concluded that: "I use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp-post – for support rather than illumination."

However, it does remain to be seen whether the side he selected may instead prove closer to a phrase beloved of the legendary coach who so memorably led Scotland to a Grand Slam 30 years ago this season, Jim Telfer.

After watching Rob Wainwright drop one too many balls in training on the 1997 Lions tour, the famously irascible coach opined: "You're like a lighthouse in a desert ... brilliant but f***ing useless!"

Scotland (v Ireland) – S Hogg; S Maitland, A Dunbar, D Taylor, S Lamont; D Weir, G Laidlaw; R Grant, R Ford, M Low; T Swinson, J Hamilton; R Wilson, K Brown (capt), D Denton. Reps: P MacArthur, A Dickinson, G Cross, R Gray, J Beattie, C Cusiter, M Scott, M Evans.

Irish Independent

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