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Players' futures on line as Johnson seeks balance

For a generation of Scottish rugby players who have repeatedly failed to produce results, time and patience may finally be running out.

Grant Gilchrist, with ball, is a player very much on Scott Johnson's radar. Picture: SNS
Grant Gilchrist, with ball, is a player very much on Scott Johnson's radar. Picture: SNS

Changes to the team that lost to England at Twickenham may have been kept to a minimum for this weekend's match but, for all Scott Johnson's determination to avoid stating directly that it was time to deliver or else, a thread seemed to run through his comments yesterday strongly insinuating as much.

"We're trying to find the balance of when we change people in and out and now we've got a run of two weeks with a clearcut guide to the form and the future of others. So this week's important for the squad going forward," said the caretaker coach.

Asked if that meant places were on the line he responded: "I'm not threatening that. What I'm saying is we're in the tournament as of this weekend if we win. That would mean there's only one team on four points after this weekend.

"We've got a couple of home games so if we get that right we're in the tournament up there. That's how it is. After the weekend we might review it slightly different depending on results and performances. Performances are key here now."

It is darkly amusing, if not overly surprising, how willing coaches are to talk about hypothetical situations based on the premise of them winning the next game and how unwilling they are to consider the implications of failing to do so.

That is human nature, no doubt, but recent experience tells those assessing Scottish rugby with any trace of objectivity that it is necessary to consider such possibilities.

A man who likes a slogan, Johnson's mantra for selection in this campaign has been "form or future" and you cannot help but feel that the emphasis will shift heavily to the latter if the unthinkable happens.

An Australian head coach has, of course, attempted to do this before in Scotland with painful consequences for all concerned, but times were very different then.

A mere four years of failure had preceded Matt Williams' decision to tell some players who had a pretty decent conceit of themselves that they had no more to offer and must step aside to make way for younger men.

The policy was sound, but he did not really do his homework and its implementation was dreadful with some selection howlers and ridiculously exaggerated comments about the players' abilities contributing to getting him off to a start from which he never recovered.

Barring a brief injection of life when Frank Hadden took over two years later, and in doing so inspired performances that demonstrated how wrong Williams had been to write off his players' ability to tackle, that description could be seen as describing Scottish rugby as whole.

During the decade since Williams was appointed, Hadden's 2006 campaign stands alone as the only time Scotland have won more than one match in a Six Nations Championship.

Now, though, there is a growing awareness within the wider rugby community of just how serious matters are and it may be more readily accepted that players who have spent too long in a failing culture are close to the point of having to be discarded.

While Johnson vigorously defended Scotland's players when asked if they really are just not good enough, there was a telling remark as he observed: "If you want to be good at something you've got to make it more important."

Perhaps the most vivid indication of his thinking came when he was asked specifically about Jim Hamilton, the lock who, uniquely, even in this dismal age for Scottish rugby, stands poised to reach double figures for successive losses when in the starting line-up.

It has generally been perceived as a battle between him and Al Kellock, the 2011 World Cup captain who was dropped after a match of that tournament, to play alongside Richie Gray in the boiler-house, but their current coach instantly raised another option.

"We looked at everyone, Jim not in isolation," he said. "The fact is that we thought we had a plan going in for a couple of weeks . . . just the consistency. It's really over the quick turnaround to chop and change people. We lost a couple through injury and it was a balancing act.

"We've got lineout issues. I've got a lot of time for this young Grant Gilchrist who, if it wasn't for some issues last week, would have gone very close to making the initial 23. He couldn't train the first week we were in camp at all because he was in a [orthopaedic] boot. I've got a lot of time for him. He's an aggressive young fella and I think he's part of the future for this country."

Not that it is only older players whose performances are drawing increased scrutiny.

Ruaridh Jackson may now, with 16, be the second most-capped player in the back line behind Sean Lamont. He does not turn 24 until next week and yet his performance at Twickenham caused his selection to be specifically queried at yesterday's press conference.

"As a 10 myself we toyed with that [a change] but to be fair there's got to be a bit of consistency of why you did it," said Johnson. "Jacko's form was pretty good coming in. He was picked on form and Duncan [Weir] and Tom [Heathcote] haven't played a lot of rugby, so it's balancing that off too. We've got to find out if he can do it.

"We're going to see if he can hold the fort . . . but I'm not going to put the pressure on the kid and just label it there. I want to see some growth. His form warranted his selection. He's not totally happy with his performance but nor are other people who went on that pitch. The fact is there's something in him. We've got to find out."

A glowing endorsement it was not, but then very few could lay claim to having earned that last Saturday or in the months and, indeed, years that preceded it.

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