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Forward into the Valleys as Johnson refuses to back himself into a corner

Scott Johnson said yesterday that his time in Wales had knocked the rough edges off his bohemian lifestyle, but any man who names a team with 14 backs still has a distance to travel on the road to staid convention.

Richie Vernon is ahead of schedule in his conversion from No.8 to centre, according to Johnson. Picture: SNS/SRU
Richie Vernon is ahead of schedule in his conversion from No.8 to centre, according to Johnson. Picture: SNS/SRU

The official reason for the selection - or maybe, more correctly - the non-selection of the team to play Wales in Cardiff on Saturday was that three Scotland backs are currently struggling with injuries. Johnson named Tommy Seymour (calf) and Max Evans (back) as concerns, but refused to name the third. The drafting of Ruaridh Jackson provoked suspicions that fly-half Duncan Weir might be struggling, but Johnson stressed that he had no worries on that front.

Of course, given the Machiavellian reputation he made for himself as assistant coach of Wales and director of rugby at Ospreys, there are bound to be those in the Valleys who suspect that Johnson is simply up to his old tricks again. In truth, it is difficult to see where such conspiracies might lead, but the head coach has certainly not boxed himself in ahead of his Welsh reunion.

The most intriguing characters in Johnson's elongated backline are Dougie Fife and Richie Vernon, of Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively. The uncapped Fife has been in superb form for his club, and Johnson said he "wouldn't blinks an eyelid" if he had to pick the 23-year-old winger. Vernon, meanwhile, is in the early stages of his conversion from No.8 to centre, but Johnson, one of the instigators of the move, suggested that he is doing far better than might have been expected. "He has surprised a lot of people," the coach smiled. "He is a work in progress, but he's further down the track than everyone thought. It just goes to show he probably played like that as a back-rower. On the bench you look at all permutations and he might come on the road sooner rather than later."

Richie Gray backed up Johnson's assessment of Vernon, who was his team-mate at both Glasgow and Sale. "I didn't expect him to get moved to centre," admitted Gray. "But looking at how he's played I've been impressed. I think the Toulon game [Heineken Cup at Scotstoun] was his first action and he made a 70 metre break with almost his first touch. He then got a couple of tries against Leinster. From only being in the position for a couple of months, he's making huge gains. He's always been a great rugby player, wherever he plays. I'm not as fast as Richie. I was shoved into the forwards when I was young, but I didn't have the pace to get out."

Despite their walking wounded, Scotland go into Saturday's match with one more day of preparation time under their belts. Wales lost 29-18 to England in a physically taxing match at Twickenham on Sunday, but Johnson believes that their wounded pride will be a more of a factor than their battered bodies when they face up to Scotland.

Johnson said: "They're the current champions and they'll be hurting. I'm expecting them to come out all guns blazing but I expect our guys to come out all guns blazing too. You want that and need that. So we're going to have a shoot-out."

Johnson also went out of his way to praise Al Strokosch, the Perpignan forward who has been with the Scotland squad for the duration of the Six Nations but hasn't featured yet. Strokosch has been named on the bench to face Wales, and the coach explained that the former Edinburgh and Gloucester forward had been an exemplary member of the Scottish party over the past few weeks.

"He's been in the squad the whole time and he has reacted [to being left out] like the bloke he is. He cops it through the teeth, through the stomach; he's a man's man and has been nothing but superb. His behaviour has been impeccable and we want an impeccable performance from him if he gets on.

"If you're in this squad you're expected to lace up your boots at anytime. You want that professional attitude and so you're in the team meetings and you switch on."

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