Planet Rugby

Johnson zeroing in on top Scots

15th January 2014 14:48


chirs fusaro scotland

Sevens: Fusaro and Grant

Scotland head coach Scott Johnson's Six Nations squad announcement shows he has built a clear picture of his strongest XV.

Johnson is no stranger to a spot of mischief, nor a left-field selection. But his 36-man Scotland squad for the rapidly-approaching Six Nations Championship sprung few surprises, largely consisting of familiar faces.

The November Tests were an exercise in squad expansion for Johnson, who has his sights trained on the 2015 World Cup above all else. To that end, they largely served their purpose; results were not of great importance, with building depth and competition for places the Australian's MO - "putting runs on the board", as the coach himself is fond of saying.

Johnson did send some mixed messages with his November selections, however. Tenacious openside Chris Fusaro was in the form of his life at Glasgow Warriors, but was overlooked in favour of trusted skipper Kelly Brown, whose ongoing stint in the number seven jersey is regarded as a failed experiment by many.

At the opposite end of the scale, hooker Ross Ford started all three games despite reaching the low point of a steadily worsening slump in form. That left promising Warrior Pat MacArthur kicking his heels on the bench, and has subsequently failed to provide Ford with much in the way of meaningful rivalry to spark him into life. The Borderer has shown fleeting glimpses of his aptitude for Edinburgh since then, but still falls some way short of performing to his full capabilities.

Johnson has a tendency to place great emphasis on form - or at least talk about it - and so it was encouraging to see uncapped but free-scoring Edinburgh wing Dougie Fife make the cut. Some of his team-mates were not so lucky; openside Roddy Grant in particular has just cause to feel a tad miffed at exclusion from another Scotland squad given his relentless consistency. So too Jack Cuthbert, whose displays in the capital rightly saw him labelled Scotland's form full-back.

The omission of Grant and fellow flanker John Barclay, both ultra-fit breakdown specialists, was extremely harsh, largely ignorant of form, and suggests two things. Either Johnson continues to favour playing without a genuine seven, or will hand opportunities to Fusaro and Ross Rennie.

Uncapped Fusaro would be justified in not unduly raising his hopes for Test action after the November snub, and though Rennie is a world-class operator, his fitness is still a huge issue; Grant nailing down the openside berth for Edinburgh throughout the season.

The announcement also exposes several areas of Scotland's squad best described as threadbare. There are plenty of international teams that struggle year on year to produce quality Test props, but Johnson seems in increasingly short supply.

Despite his veteran status, Euan Murray's scrummaging sees him ranked top of the tree on the tighthead side; with his Six Nations involvement curtailed by injury, the options shouldn't fill Scottish fans with confidence. This is especially so given the heightened importance of the tighthead under the new IRB scrum protocols.

Warrior Jon Welsh looked to be in pole position to take Murray's place, but Johnson obviously felt differently, and hasn't included him in the squad. Moray Low and Geoff Cross are the two recognised tightheads, but neither have produced sufficient form nor been awarded ample game time to suggest they should be Test starters. There are similar worries on the opposite side of the scrum should Ryan Grant pick up a knock.

Tim Visser is a huge loss out wide, and much will rest on the youthful shoulders of Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar to spark Scotland's attack from midfield. The fly-half position is wide open, and some wonder whether Johnson's mischievous streak could see him plump for Greig Tonks as his first-choice ten after the 24-year-old full-back took to the pivot duties with ease amid Edinburgh's injury crisis.

Altogether, the squad no longer screams "transition". Of course, many questions remain unanswered. Doubts hover over the breakdown, scrummage, and as ever, attacking potency. There are certainly still opportunities for those on the fringes to force their way into the reckoning. But this announcement shows tell-tale signs of a coach beginning to narrow in, rightly or wrongly, on what he perceives to be his strongest line-up.

By Jamie Lyall

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