Scott Johnson has only been in his post as Scotland head coach for a matter of weeks but already his laid-back demeanour, refreshingly basic approach and memorable sound bites have endeared him to much of Scotland’s often fickle and stubborn rugby community.
Johnson, along with new forwards coach and former England number 8 Dean Ryan, have only had little over a week with the squad but already the signs are there that there’s a renewed sense of pride and belief about what can realistically be achieved this spring.
“Selection for us this week has been about current form but also with one eye on the future”, the Australian head coach confirmed.
“We’ve spoken about the tradition of the tournament and this competition and you couldn’t ask for a more mouth-watering game between international rugby’s oldest foes.”
After an unnecessary delay, Johnson confirmed that Saracens flanker Kelly Brown will resume the captaincy and the 30 year-old former Borders and Glasgow Warriors player will wear the number 7 jersey at Twickenham on Saturday when he leads the team out for the Six Nations opener.
Nine players were also cut from the initial 35-man squad yesterday, among then Glasgow’s Chris Fusaro and Tommy Seymour. Many pundits had tipped the Warriors duo for selection but instead they will link up with the other surplus players including exiles Richie Vernon and Tom Heathcote for Scotland A team duty this weekend.
In naming his team to face England at Twickenham on Saturday, Johnson has resisted the temptation to make sweeping changes – mindful perhaps of the lingering negative feelings at the end of the Robinson era last November, but also needing to retain a leadership core to assist the younger players.
With that in mind, there is only one debutant – Sean Maitland, the New Zealand-born Glasgow Warriors winger, will start on the right side of an exciting back three also featuring Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg. There are recalls for Warriors hooker Doug Hall and Montpellier’s Johnnie Beattie, who is probably the form number 8 in Europe at the moment having made a hugely positive impact in the French Top 14.
The real areas of dilemma for the coaches were the second row, back row and centre pairing as injuries to the likes of specialist openside flanker Ross Rennie and centre Nick DeLuca along with Joe Ansbro’s long-term absence to recover from a neck injury, meant that new partnerships had to be formed, although the withdrawal of England’s centre Manu Tuliagi yesterday may have forced Johnson’s hand somewhat.
Matt Scott retains the 12 jersey and veteran Sean Lamont will fill-in at outside centre in a combination which was probably designed to thwart the explosive Tuilagi and the destructive Brad Barritt in the English midfield.
Despite Glasgow Warrior’s league form, their captain Al Kellock has been demoted to the replacements bench with Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton forming a powerhouse second-row combination, and in the back row, Beattie and Brown are joined by Alasdair Strockosch who returns to the squad after missing last week’s session due to the birth of his second child.
Ross Ford’s ongoing struggle for from and fitness means that Hall earns his first start in over five years at hooker whilst Ryan Grant and Euan Murray make up a powerful front row which should earn parity at least with the English at scrum time.
In selecting Ruaridh Jackson at stand-off, Johnson had little choice but to ask Greig Laidlaw to revert back to scrum-half and presumably to resume goal-kicking duties allowing the in-form Jackson to bring his runners into the game and create space for the dynamic back three.
This new-look Scotland XV will run out at Twickenham on Saturday knowing full well that not many pundits or supporters give them much of a chance, but that is a familiar mindset for past Scottish sides heading to south west London in recent years.
Where Scotland have a slight edge is in the tight forwards and with Gray and Hamilton, they have an advantage in the lineout provided Doug Hall’s throwing is as consistent as usual.
Johnson also knows that recent Calcutta cup games have been decided by less than six points and so by naming the likes of Ford, Dave Denton, Kellock, Duncan Weir and Max Evans on the bench, there is a real possibility that if Scotland are still hanging on around the 60 minute mark, they have the reinforcements to change the game plan and significantly raise the tempo.
Whilst most aren’t expecting great things from this exciting but raw team in its infancy, Scotland certainly have the tools necessary to do a job at Twickenham in the Six Nations opener.
Scotland team to face England at Twickenham on Saturday
15 - Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)
14 - Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors)
13 - Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors)
12 - Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby)
11 - Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby)
10 - Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors)
9 - Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby
8 - Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier)
7 - Kelly Brown (Saracens) CAPTAIN
6 - Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan)
5 - Jim Hamilton (Gloucester Rugby)
4 - Richie Gray (Sale Sharks)
3 - Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors)
2 - Doug Hall (Glasgow Warriors)
1 - Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors)
Subs: Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby), Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby), Alistair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), Dave Denton (Edinburgh Rugby), Henry Pyrgos, Duncan Weir (both Glasgow Warriors), Max Evans (Castres)
You can follow Finlay Morrison on Twitter @FinMorrison