IT was Gregor Townsend, during his days as head coach at Glasgow Warriors, who brought Sam Johnson to Scotland just over three and a half years ago, and he happily admits that he had never seen the Australian-born centre in the flesh before the then 22-year-old pitched up at Scotstoun in the summer of 2015.
“I would have loved a wee flight out to Brisbane to see him but no, it was his videos,” said the now Scotland head coach, when discussing his decision to hand the same player his Scotland debut against Italy at Murrayfield in Saturday’s Six Nations curtain-raiser. “He played a couple of games off the bench for Queensland Reds and we looked at his Rugby League footage as he had a Rugby League background until he was 21. The element of his game that excited us most back then was his running ability.”
Fortunately for Townsend, and for Warriors, and now for Scotland, Johnson did not end up being a video nasty – a player who looks like a superstar on the screen but is a far less impressive proposition in the flesh. While it would be stretching it to say that he was an instant hit at his new club – he managed five starts and five appearances off the bench in his first season – the potential was evident from the start.
“He had a shoulder injury when he first arrived in Scotland but when we eventually got to work with him his running lines and passing impressed us at training,” explained the coach. “And his defence has got better and better.”
But at that early stage, Townsend was not thinking that this might be a future Scotland number 12. Apart from anything else, the player still needed to qualify to wear the thistle through the three-year residency rule.
“I don’t know, I thought he would improve Glasgow,” replied Townsend, when asked how far he saw Johnson going. “I thought he would be a very good signing. He was the type of player we were looking for, a 12 who can pass and defend well, and make good rugby decisions. He has done that over the past few years.
“And that is part of the way we want to play rugby with Scotland, so he fits in very well with that.
“He is a top man,” Townsend added. “He is laid back. He was quiet in that first year, but he came out of his shell. He was brought up in a place called Ipswich in Queensland Country which is very different to a big city like Glasgow … very different weather. That would be a big move for him away from the family. He had a dog that he missed. But he got very friendly with the players at Glasgow and has grown in confidence. He enjoys being in Scotland and feels part of the country now, and his mum and dad are coming over for the game.”
Townsend would not be drawn on whether Johnson would have started if his Warriors team-mate Pete Horne had been fit, but it seems the chances are high with the coach known to have been keen to get him some game time during November before a concussion ruled him out of that series. With the World Cup looming over the horizon, he does not have time to dilly-dally when it comes to finding out if potential squad members are ready to play at international level.
“Peter will be back in the next week or two – and he has played a lot of rugby at 12 for Scotland – but Sam has an opportunity now to make it difficult for Peter to get back into the team,” Townsend said.
Keeping up with the Jones
Johnson will line up in the centre alongside another Warriors team-mate in Huw Jones on Saturday, and Townsend says he is looking forward to seeing the pair combine.
“Sam and Huw know each other well, they play at club level together and combined really well when they played a couple of times before the November Tests,” he said. “Huw has been excellent for Scotland, most of his games he’s played very well and the game against South Africa was a recent case in point. Although Huw hasn’t played that much for Glasgow since November, that was partly due to the rib injury he picked up in the 1872 Cup game.
“We felt that in his last game coming off the bench fairly early against Saracens he looked in form, did some good things, and we feel the way he’s trained he’s ready to go again with Scotland.”
There is a general perception that Jones has struggled to hit the same highs he has managed in a Scotland jersey for Warriors since signing on with Dave Rennie’s side in November 2017, but Townsend thinks it is too simplistic to label him a flop at club level.
“Before the November Tests he was playing really well,” stated the coach. “I recall an excellent line-break in the home game against Saracens and a week later against Cardiff he was outstanding when they won with a bonus point. We then went into the November Tests and since November he’s been unlucky with injury.
“Last year because of the timing with Huw coming over, he didn’t play any rugby [for Warriors] before the November Tests, and its sometimes difficult to be an established player at a club when you’re not there that often – other players grab opportunities during the November window and again during the Six Nations window.”
Gary Graham gets his chance
Meanwhile, Townsend insisted that he can see no reason why Gary Graham’s dalliance with England this time last year will be held against him if the flanker makes his debut off the bench on Saturday.
The 26-year-old – who is the son of former Scotland prop and assistant coach George Graham – gave an incendiary interview when he was called into Eddie Jones’ squad ahead of the last Six Nations in which he stated: “England want to be No1 in the world and I’m not sure Scotland will ever be anywhere near. I’ve grown up here so, yeah, I feel more English than Scottish.” But Townsend argued that the words sound a lot worse when taken out of context.
“He was joking around with his dad in the living room,” insisted the coach. “He learnt he has to watch what he says. Sometimes if you don’t mean something you’d better not say it.
“Gary has been brought up a proud Scot. He had an opportunity last year when we were too slow off the mark and England offered him that chance to go to their training camp. We’re just delighted he’s now available to us.
“I would have thought they [Scotland fans] would support anyone who wears that blue jersey and is proud to play for Scotland. Gary played age-group for Scotland and club internationals. His dad was a great player for Scotland, someone who was Scottish through and through. Gary will play with pride and passion if he gets the opportunity off the bench.
“He has been a regular for Newcastle for the past couple of seasons, he is tough and has an incredible engine. He can cover six and seven and he takes the game to the opposition in attack and defence.”
Scotland (v Italy at BT Murrayfield, Saturday 2.15pm): Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn; Fin Russell, Greig Laidlaw (c); Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner, Jamie Ritchie, Ryan Wilson. Subs: Jake Kerr, Jamie Bhatti, Gary Graham, Josh Strauss, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Chis Harris.
Squad players unavailable through injury: Jonny Gray (shoulder), George Horne (shoulder), Pete Horne (knee), Lee Jones (knee), Sean Maitland (hamstring), Grant Stewart (shoulder).