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Jam tomorrow, but supporters are hungry now

Scott Johnson likes his one-liners, so when someone asked him yesterday when the 'jam tomorrow' rhetoric of Scottish coaches might finish he was always going to take the idea somewhere.

"Good analogy," said Scotland's head coach, "I like that one . . . I'll give you a really good sandwich at the end, okay?"

Classic Johnson, but as so often happens with the Australian, it was a response that demanded a follow-up - and a more serious answer. The point, as just about any long-suffering Scottish fan would agree, is that we have become so wearily accustomed to listening to coaches bleat on ad nauseam about developing sides, building for the future and focusing on long-term goals that some of us have started to wonder if the promised land is ever going to be reached.

Johnson enjoyed a honeymoon period last year after taking over on an interim basis from Andy Robinson. He delivered two victories and a third-place finish in the Six Nations, then stressed that everything else he planned to do in 2013 was directed towards widening the Test side's pool of available talent. With the support of his Scottish Rugby Union employers, he explained that he would be happy to lose every game if the end result was a side in better shape to challenge at the 2015 World Cup.

So is the time for experiments over? Can we now get serious? The four-year World Cup cycle encourages the jam-tomorrow culture, but with another Six Nations looming there are many followers of the Scotland team who would like to see a few dollops of strawberry conserve drop on their plates over the next few weeks. Could Johnson assure us that the team picked to face Ireland was, quite simply, the best available right now?

Eh, no. Not quite. "It was what we deemed to be the best team to carry us through the start of the tournament," replied Johnson, an answer that still sounded like he was hedging his bets. Clearly, the coach still has a vision of what his best team will be when issues of fitness, form and application are sorted out, and it is probably rather different to the one he named yesterday.

There is, for instance, the Richie Gray question. There is not a side in the world that could afford to ignore the physical presence, the athleticism and the underlying talent that the giant Castres lock can bring, but Johnson has decided he can live without him in his team right now. Tim Swinson's selection alongside Jim Hamilton in the second row is undoubtedly a reward for the three wonderfully abrasive shifts he has put in for Scotland so far, but it is also a very clear shot across Gray's bows.

"I want guys to be sitting sweating in their jerseys," said Johnson. "If they feel that then we've got good competition for slots. In the last few years I don't think there was that."

Gray had a poor November series. However, in acknowledging that the player's form had improved sharply since then, Johnson emphasised that the road back into the Scotland side is never going to be a stroll for any player.

"He [Gray] climbed a mountain to get on the Lions tour," said Johnson. "But as you saw with [fellow Lion Stuart] Hogg, I don't think his form was great after the Lions series. Richie, by his own admission, was a slow starter, but he has turned the corner. But I go back to the fact that we don't want [selection by] divine right. You've got to do the deed."

While Gray watches from the sidelines at the start of Sunday's game, he will have some serious customers beside him on the Scotland bench. In fact, it could be argued that Scotland have never picked such a threatening or experienced set of replacements, a point acknowledged by Ireland defence coach Les Kiss after he had seen the Scottish team.

"It's an interesting team," said Kiss. "They've probably loaded the bench a bit more. On my count there are 230-odd caps on the bench [232 to be exact] and that's fairly hefty. Also, their pack's got 241, I've counted, and 146 in the backs, so it's a fairly handy sort of team. That's 620 caps, so they're fairly experienced."

Well, in some areas they are. Where they are worryingly light on that quality, however, is in the midfield, where Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor can boast just nine international appearances between them. As Ireland's likeliest centre partnership will be made up of the 128-times capped Brian O'Driscoll and the 75-times capped Gordon D'Arcy, it is an uneven contest as far as miles on the clock is concerned.

Johnson would almost certainly have preferred to have Matt Scott - not exactly a greybeard after his 16 Scotland outings - but it was considered too much of a risk to throw the Edinburgh player straight back in at the deep end after a three-month absence with a hand injury. "We had discussions [about Scott] but I didn't think it was right on the lad for two reasons," the coach explained.

"One was that he hasn't played for a long time and the other was that Duncan Taylor's form has been really good. Duncan did a good job for us in the autumn and I don't want anyone to have a walk-up start in this team, so I think this is the right thing to do."

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