Scott Johnson had a decent start to his temporary reign as interim Scotland head coach, leading them to third place in the 2013 Six Nations – albeit after only achieving two wins. However, since May 2013, when it was announced that Clermont coach Vern Cotter would be taking over on a full time basis at the end of the 2013-14 season, Johnson’s selection policy can only be described in similar words to those that would be used to sum up the current state of the Murrayfield pitch. A complete mess.
Never is this more obvious than when looking at the way he has treated (former / possibly current / probably future) Scotland captain, Kelly Brown.
In November, Brown, captain in his side’s win over Japan a week earlier, was bizarrely rested for the Autumn International against South Africa. If Johnson was doing his best to manage his captain’s workload, why on earth did he play him against Japan and not the Springboks?
Scotland were completely outplayed by a strong South Africa side and whilst there is no guarantee that Brown’s inclusion would have had an effect on the result, an international captain should never be rested for such an important fixture.
Johnson followed that up last weekend with an even more baffling decision, leaving the Saracens star out of the match day 23 against England, a fixture that every Scotland player looks forward to more than any other. The decision was even harsher considering that Brown had played out of position as an openside flanker in the heavy defeat to Ireland the week before.
While no-one would have been making excuses for what was undoubtedly a lacklustre performance in Dublin, Johnson would have done well to remember that this was an Ireland team that had so nearly beaten New Zealand in the autumn. They have since humbled the 2012 and 2013 Six Nations champions, Wales.
So, we are clearly talking about a team in form here and to drop Brown after that one game doesn’t seem terribly fair – especially when you consider that none of the pack (perhaps barring Dave Denton) performed well.
But Johnson decided that Brown would be the scapegoat.
Justifying his decision to drop his captain before the England game, he said that Brown was a starter or a non-starter, meaning that he holds little value as an impact player and would therefore waste a spot on the bench.
Judging by comments on social media over the weekend most Scotland fans felt Brown should have led the side and started the England game from his favoured blind side position. And when you think about it, what had Ryan Wilson done to suggest he should be selected ahead of Brown? The captain should surely have priority.
It is possible that something has happened behind the scenes in Camp Mudbath that the rugby masses are unaware of, but it appears that this is more down to a very strange selection policy on Johnson’s part.
Brown appeared on the BT Sports Panel show in London on Saturday morning, overcoming fears of public speaking on a 150 minute live TV show despite suffering from a lifelong stammer. He spoke of being desperately disappointed to not be involved in the Calcutta Cup match, but vowed to reclaim his place in the Scotland side.
Johnson does find himself in the unfortunate position of not having much to aim for as interim coach. Cotter has already been lined up as his long term replacement but it is very surprising that the SRU have allowed Johnson to name Brown as captain, rest him, play him out of position and drop him without considering the long term impact on the national team – not to mention on Brown himself.
Other strange selection issues (such as the continued faith in Ross Ford and Jim Hamilton when clearly neither are playing well, or the dropping of Richie Gray from the bench after just one cameo against Ireland – we could go on, but there isn’t the space or time here) also point to the coach’s confused mind.
Cotter will not arrive for another few months but with Johnson also vocally blaming the players, as opposed to his own shortcomings, for Saturday’s heavy defeat against the auld enemy, the damage to the Scotland dressing room could be irreparable just nineteen months ahead of the next Rugby World Cup.
The last Australian in Johnson’s shoes, Matt Williams, can tell you all about the dangers of losing the Scotland dressing room.
Without Brown, Scotland were even worse in defeat against England on Saturday than they were the previous weekend in Dublin. Perhaps Johnson needs a dose of him own medicine and should be relieved of his responsibilities midway through this year’s Six Nations. A strange, un-rugby like move, yes – but one Johnson could ironically empathise with.
By Alastair Pickering (@AMP_Rugby)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images