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Scotland: Johnson finds hands tied by lack of options

So what should be the euphemism of choice for Scott Johnson's first Scotland squad selection?

Nearly new? Pre-owned? Just run in? Breaking for spares? Previously loved?

No, not that one. The Scotland side which caved in so spectacularly against Tonga just eight weeks ago wasn't exactly drinking in the acclaim of the Aberdeen crowd as they made their bedraggled way off the Pittodrie pitch to a barrage of booing from the stands.

The consensus around the city that evening was that Scotland had just delivered their worst performance ever. It plummeted them to 12th in the world rankings, an all-time low, and it ushered Andy Robinson out of his job. In its aftermath, however, the consensus among those involved was that Robinson was just the fall guy, that the real blame lay with the players.

Oh yeah? Of the 20 Scotland players who took part (rumour has it that the three unused begged to stay on the bench), 18 still found a way into Johnson's squad, either as actual selections or, in the case of the injured John Barclay and Scott Lawson, with official observer status. Of the two who did not, only Rory Lawson counts as a surprise, as Kyle Traynor had only found his way into the side as the result of an injury crisis at loosehead prop.

So the Johnson era has begun with a resounding statement. It's out with the old and in with the, er, old. Or maybe the motto should be "that's all folks", for the fact of the matter is that the caretaker coach had precious little wriggle room and few other options.

Lawson was unlucky to miss out. So, too, his Newcastle Falcons colleague Ally Hogg. Maybe Johnson was concerned that players who have grown accustomed to winning rugby matches might be a disruptive influence. It is devilishly difficult to think of many, indeed any, others who have made a persuasive case for themselves in recent months.

And yet, there is a misleading dimension to this. Johnson's same old Scotland isn't so old after all. Staggeringly, of the 16 backs in the squad, only four have been international players for more than a year. Johnson has trumpeted the fact that he will select players with an eye on the future, but that process was already well under way on Robinson's watch.

Of course, there is also the consideration that the squad contains 10 uncapped players, even if only one, Glasgow scrum-half Sean Kennedy, can be considered a surprise. Five of those will be attending their first international session when they clock on at Scotstoun tomorrow, but only Sean Maitland seems to have a realistic chance of making the starting XV against England at Twickenham in two weeks, although Chris Fusaro could be pushing hard as well.

Yet for all that continuity has been the theme of Johnson's first squad, there is no suggestion that he shares his predecessor's flaw of sticking with favoured players and ignoring issues of form. In 2009, for his first Six Nations match with Scotland, Robinson chose Phil Godman at fly-half despite the fact he had been comprehensively outplayed by Dan Parks in that season's intercity matches. And Godman was far from the only example of a selection strategy in which wishful thinking seemed to play too great a part.

Johnson comes without that baggage. Whether his ideas are right or wrong, at least they are fresh. And players can sense that kind of thing. In last year's losses to Italy in the Six Nations, and then Tonga, there was a distinct impression that they didn't give two hoots about what Robinson thought. Over the next few days at Scotstoun, catching the eye of Johnson will be just about the only thing on their minds.

So although the guts of the team who lost to Tonga are still there (if they could be said to have had any), and although a good number of them will be in the side at Twickenham, places are up for grabs. That both Robinson and his predecessor, Frank Hadden, experienced early success was a product of having players who were eager to please. Johnson has to make sure he enjoys that bounty of enthusiasm too, however limited his resources in other areas might be.

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