SCOTT Hastings knows what it takes to play centre for Scotland, having represented his country in the position with some distinction between 1986 and 1997. And he is in little doubt about which combination should play there against Wales on Saturday: Pete Horne and Sam Johnson.
The selection of Horne at inside centre and Johnson at outside would mean a move to an unaccustomed position for the latter, who has played the bulk of his rugby at 12. But Hastings has been highly impressed by Johnson’s contributions at 13 in his three Tests to date, and is sure he has the intuitive awareness to thrive in his new position, especially with Glasgow Warriors team-mate Horne inside him, given that Finn Russell is fit again and able to take over from Horne at stand-off.
“That 13 position is so crucial for me, not only in terms of distributing to the back three, but also providing some solidity in the middle,” Hastings said on Monday at the launch at the David Lloyd Club in Newhaven Harbour, Edinburgh, of this year’s 100 Streets Challenge, an initiative by mental-health charity Support in Mind Scotland. “Nick Grigg struggled with that intensity last week, and we all know that Sam Johnson is great.
“The midfield combo is so important. I think we’ve seen that Peter Horne is better at 12 than commanding a game at 10, so that’s a given. So it’s whether Johnson then moves to the outside slot.
“I would probably go for that. Sam Johnson is a good ball-player, Peter Horne plays 12, and if there’s one thing going for the Johnson- Horne combo, they’ve trained with each other at Glasgow Warriors.
“We all know the step up in intensity is difficult, and I think Nick Grigg just found that a little bit. I don’t want to point the finger at Nick Grigg: he’s carried the ball well in previous games.
“Does he get another chance? That’s still going to be part of the selection equation and discussion. For me, I think the feeling is that Horne and Johnson in the centres is the best option available at the moment.”
While believing that his nephew Adam still deserves his place in the squad, Hastings, along with virtually everyone else, is presuming that Russell will indeed be back at 10 after missing the defeat by France because of injury. He is less convinced when it comes to who will be picked at scrum-half, but believes that Greig Laidlaw’s greater consistency should get him the nod over Ali Price.
“Do you continue to play Laidlaw and Russell? Or do you look at a change at scrum-half? And every time I’ve maybe questioned Laidlaw, he’s always bounced back with a man-of-the-match performance.
“You don’t just drop your captain like that. He is an important cog for Scotland. But there again, does Gregor decide ‘Right, I need to look at a different combination pre-Rugby World Cup’?
“It’s so difficult. We’re assuming that Finn Russell is going to be fit, so his combination with Laidlaw might get an edge. If it doesn’t work, hey, who knows, 40 minutes into the game?, it’s just a case of ‘Right Greig, give us your best 40 minutes’, if it’s not working for Scotland, then Price comes on for 40.
“At the moment, Adam is understudy to Finn, but he can have an influence on the game as he did coming off the bench in Paris. I was very proud of what he did. If he can play with a little bit more consistency and game management, that will come with experience.
“I think we all look to Adam to be a catalyst for everything that’s good. There’s a little bit of X factor about him. He’s a young man, 22 years of age, playing Six Nations rugby: that takes quite a few years to bed down in terms of experience playing in such a pivotal position.
“You can look back to the Christmas period where he made errors in the 1872 Cup. Those were good errors to make – he made them and he’ll learn from them. But at international level we get exposed hugely when we’re under that microscope.”
Scotland’s limitations have certainly been exposed in the last two games in the Championship, and Hastings is in no doubt that the pressure will again be on them when they face a Wales side who have the Grand Slam in their sights. But he always boasted an unshakeable confidence as a player, and he still hopes that the team can rediscover the form that produced two memorable home wins in last year’s Championship.
“Scotland have just misfired. I don’t think there’s been an intensity to their game, and when you look back to last week, Wales-England was chalk and cheese compared to France-Scotland.
“We’ve hardly fired a salvo this championship, and for me there has to be an intensity to Scotland’s players. That puts a pressure on Scotland, and we’ve shown that this high-tempo game needs high-intensity play. Suddenly, if it doesn’t happen, there doesn’t seem to be an Option B.
“Now the Option B might be a kicking game, it might be a defensive game – we’ve not seen that from Scotland. It’s either one or t’other, and it’s not happening at the moment.
“[Warren] Gatland’s Wales are well coached and well driven, and Scotland have been out-thought over the last few years by Gatland’s tactical master plan. It’s an interesting dilemma for Scotland. They could fizzle out of this championship by getting well beaten over the next two games, or stand up and let’s have a performance.
“We only have to turn the clock back 12 months to remember Scotland’s last big performance in the Six Nations at Murrayfield against England when they produced a monumental performance. They can do that again on Saturday, but you look at Wales and you go ‘they are the favourites, we are the underdogs’.”
But, while that is what his head is telling him, Hastings’ heart has a different message. “I have a very passionate heart and it keeps ruling my head!” he said.
“I think if you look at the form book then it is a Wales win, but I was a player and I never thought that and this championship still has a sting in the tail – and it’s up to Scotland to create that sting.”
It is free to take part in Support in Mind Scotland’s 100 Streets Challenge. Sign up now at www.100streetschallenge.com/registration