AFTER 10 days or so of relentless bad news for the Scotland squad, Sam Johnson has injected a welcome note of optimism into proceedings by insisting that the players themselves were able to shrug off the injury woes and focus on Saturday’s match against France with their confidence still high.
According to the Glasgow Warriors centre, the view from inside the national squad looking out is very different from the one supporters may have from the outside looking in. Johnson did not seek to minimise the loss of important players such as Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, but insisted he and his team-mates took great heart both from the considerable ability of those who have been passed fit to face the French and from the general deepening of the pool of talent available to head coach Gregor Townsend.
“I think from an internal point of view, it doesn’t matter who puts on that jersey, you’re expected to do a job,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “Whereas obviously from an outside point of view people are going to be devastated with the people we’ve lost, I think we’ve got a good enough squad here. Finn’s a great player, but it doesn’t matter who comes in, whether it’s Pete Horne, Adam Hastings or Dunky Weir, you’ve got a job to do for Scotland and you’ve got to do it.
“It’s a massive thing in Scottish rugby lately, the depth, and everyone can talk about who’s not there, but you look at who is and you see there’s still a lot of guys around. We’ll be all right.
“There’s an onus on other boys to step up, isn’t there? I put myself into that. Probably the first couple of weeks, even though I was playing good rugby I was still a bit shy in regards of trying to get the ball to those boys, whereas now I’ve got to take responsibility, taking the ball to the line, taking it on and helping as much as I can.”
The Brisbane-born 25-year-old has helped a lot, actually, in his two appearances to date, not only scoring against Ireland but in general exuding the calmness of someone who has been around the camp for a few years rather than a month. He insisted, however, that the jump from Glasgow to Scotland has been a trying one no matter how smoothly he may seem to have slotted in.
Savouring the big occasion
“It’s probably the occasion more than the rugby that’s different. So getting off the bus with the bagpipes, the national anthem, all that sort of stuff – the whole day is exhausting, not just the rugby. It’s definitely a step up, the speed and physicality. You feel like you’ve played back-to-back Grand Finals in one game and you deserve four weeks off, but you’ve got to prepare again the following week. So it’s definitely a new experience, but one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.”
And whether this weekend’s experience in the Stade de France sees him wearing a 12 or a 13 on his back, he insisted he would be prepared to enjoy the experience just as thoroughly. “There’s probably just a shift in mindset between 12 and 13 – 13 is probably running a bit more and looking up, whereas 12 you’re ball-playing a bit more. Wherever Gregor wants to put me, I’m happy to fill.”
Notwithstanding that versatility, Johnson looks set to hold on to the No 12 jersey, with Chris Harris a likely starter at 13. Given the relative inexperience of those two at Test level, that makes Townsend’s decision on who to start at 10 all the more crucial. Does he go with Hastings, who comes closer than anyone else to being able to play the same style of game as Russell but is also a novice? Or does he opt for the far more experienced Horne, who was outstanding when deputising for Russell against France three years ago? We will find out when the team is announced on Thursday morning, although Johnson suggested he would be equally comfortable playing with either – or indeed with Weir, who has been drafted into the squad as cover.
“I’ve played most with either Pete or Adam. I played a little bit with Dunky Weir when he was at Glasgow, but I feel comfortable outside of all of them. They’re probably three different kind of players and I’d put Adam possibly closest to Finn in style – he can do stuff off the bat.
“Both Pete and Dunky are very good communicators and my idea is to give them time to look after the forward pods and I’ll take care of the second third of the field if you want to call it that. There’s a big role for myself to help them through the day.”
France name team
While Scotland’s difficulties have been largely injury-related, France’s problems appear to have revolved round the inability or unwillingness to select a settled side, with players being fielded out of position. This time head coach Jacques Brunel has restricted himself to just four personnel changes from the team that lost heavily to England, with the most high-profile casualties of that woeful performance being scrum-half Morgan Parra and stand-off Camille Lopez.
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack have replaced the two Clermont half-backs, who criticised the management after the 44-8 defeat at Twickenham. However, Brunel said that the decision to drop Parra and Lopez had nothing to do with that criticism.
“I’m telling you, it’s not the case,” he said. “Ask them. Ask their team-mates. Given our performance, we needed to change things. It’s a sporting choice.”
Thomas Ramos comes in at full-back, while the fourth change sees Wenceslas Lauret return at blindside. The selection of Ramos has also meant a couple of positional switches, with Yoann Huget moving from full-back to left wing and Gael Fickou returning from wing to centre.
France (v Scotland at the Stade de France, Saturday 23, kickoff 2.15pm British time): Thomas Ramos; Damian Penaud, Mathieu Bastareaud, Gaël Fickou, Yoann Huget; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado, Demba Bamba, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Félix Lambey, Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles. Substitutes: Camille Chat, Etienne Falgoux, Dorian Aldegheri, Paul Willemse, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Belleau, Maxime Médard.