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Dark arts and a brighter horizon but coach's focus on work to do

"I am not going to get carried away," said Scott Johnson on Saturday evening.

Richie Gray did more than 'glory work' in the game. Picture: SNS
Richie Gray did more than 'glory work' in the game. Picture: SNS

Had he said the same thing after the abject loss to England two weeks earlier, the response of a typical Scotland fan would probably have been a cry of "More's the pity!"

Johnson was heavily criticised for his levity in the wake of that 20-0 Calcutta Cup loss. He has seemed a chastened figure since, and his bearing after a second successive one-point win over Italy was certainly not triumphal.

"I wouldn't get carried away by a loss either," Johnson continued. "There were good things in our game and I was really happy for the boys that good fortune came their way. I was glad for them. But we'll work on the things we need to work on."

Teaching Richie Gray how to run in mud might be one of those things. The giant lock cantered around the Stadio Olimpico like a hyperactive floor mop, but his terse "no comment" about the state of the Edinburgh pitch suggests that there will not be so much cantering at Murrayfield.

Johnson, who left Gray out of the squad for the England game, paid tribute to the player's contribution. "I thought he did really well," said the coach. "You always see the glory work with Richie, with his big blond hair, but it was the other work I was more pleased with today. The dark arts, he was good at the dark arts."

Gray's second-row partner Jim Hamilton has been a master of chiaroscuro for years. Two years ago, Hamilton had a terrible game in Rome, so there was a sense of personal redemption as he pilfered Italy's first two lineout throws and directed Scotland's efforts on the touchlines so successfully that they did not turn over the ball once - a stark contrast to the England game when they might as well have just handed the ball to the opposition locks. "We believe in what we are doing and this result is vindication of the team and everyone involved," said Hamilton. "It is not about personal satisfaction, it is about doing things for Scotland and getting these young kids to play at the highest level.

"For me personally, I can play well and get slated or play badly and get slated. It is there for all to see that the lineout functioned.

"In the seven or eight years I have been involved with Scotland we have had a fantastic lineout; some years we have been statistically the best in the Six Nations.

"We have changed a few this year because we want to evolve; we were winning lineouts but not winning games and we felt as a group that we needed to change things.

"We went a little bit back to source in this game, wanting to win the ball and win it simply. Having a guy like Richie who is 6ft 10in in there helps - it is difficult to lose the ball with two big guys."

If that partnership worked well, it was matched by the centre pairing of Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar, which flourished in the warm sun. "We have a centre combination that will be the equal of any team in the north in a couple of years," said Johnson. "I've worked with some good centre partnerships and this is emerging as a really special one. Make no mistake about that."

Johnson admitted that Scott, who was out for three months with a hand injury, had been fast-tracked back into the side earlier than he would have liked, but that it was a price worth paying to evolve the pairing with Dunbar.

"We knew he would be slow out of the blocks," said Johnson. "I just felt it was a priority for these guys to get time in the saddle together. If that was at the expense of him being a bit ropey then so be it. I'm glad for him because he's a quality player and a quality bloke."

Of course, it is the two-try contribution of Alex Dunbar that is likely to be remembered long after the all-round solidity of Scott has been forgotten. Typically, the modest Dunbar was happy to share out the plaudits.

"There was a lot of opportunism [in the tries]," he said. "There was a lot of great work done inside, with Sean Lamont and Chris Cusiter putting in some great offloads for the second and I just found the gap. There was a lot of good work done inside and I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

"Everyone was disappointed after the England game where we did not perform as well as we should have and let ourselves down.

"We showed glimpses in this of what we can do. Now we need to put in that 80-minute performance."

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