THE Scottish Rugby Union has declared 2013 to be a year of development at Test level and that international results will not affect the future of coach Scott Johnson.
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That was the message from SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson and the union’s Director of Communications Dominic McKay, who spent the past two weeks with the squad in Durban and Nelspruit before heading back to Scotland for this Saturday’s AGM.
With over 20 full internationalists either on British and Irish Lions duty, injured or given the summer off to recuperate, there was little alternative on this tour but to view it as an opportunity to test Scotland’s strength in depth. The players were distinctly off the pace in the opening 27-17 defeat to Samoa, but they revived with a bristling performance in Nelspruit on Saturday that came close to clinching a first-ever win over the Springboks in South Africa, before going down 30-17.
Now out of the world’s top ten, they have one match remaining, a third-fourth play-off on Saturday against Italy before the tournament final featuring the Boks and Samoa.
However, having failed in their bid to prise new Scotland head coach Vern Cotter from French club Clermont Auvergne before his contract ends next June, Dodson insisted that the message to interim chief Johnson – recently promoted to SRU Director of Rugby - was to continue the development work from this tour through the autumn Test series with Japan, Australia and South Africa, knowing that he would not be held accountable for the results.
“He [Johnson] is leading a talented group of coaches through a period until Vern Cotter gets there,” said Dodson.
“His talents are there for everybody to see and as far as we concerned we are very happy with the coaching group we have. What you have to understand is that Scott and the coaching team are taking us through three lots of tournaments. They will take us through the summer tour, the autumn Tests and potentially the Six Nations.
“That period we are using to build a deeper and richer squad and to blood as many players as possible for Test rugby so by the time Vern gets here he has a squad to take forward in that pre-World Cup period. This tour in particular has all the ingredients of that.
“What people want to see is a team that is growing, being shaped and taken forward. We have nine new players on this tour, maybe more. That is what we came here to do. We will find out if they are up to play Test football. That’s the whole purpose of these Tests.”
Johnson’s record with Scotland now stands at two wins, over Ireland and Italy, and defeats to England, Wales, France, Samoa and South Africa, with the Italians now seeking revenge and to atone for their own dispiriting loss to the Samoans at the weekend.
Johnson knows, however, that whatever happens in the remaining Tests of 2013 he will revert to the SRU’s top rugby post, director of rugby, when Cotter is finally released by Clermont.
“Scott won’t be promoted after it because he is already in that job, director of rugby,” added Dodson, who recently set the target of winning the 2015 World Cup as a strategic goal.
“But what we are looking at with him is that this tournament and the autumn Tests will be used to try and develop the squad. We have to think of this as a longer game. If we look at short-term fixes we are not going to make the progress we want to make.”
Scotland dropped out of the world top ten after losing 27-17 to Samoa in their opening game of the quadrangular series. Had they hung on when leading 17-6 over the Boks to win they would have returned to tenth in the IRB World Rankings, and also might have moved up a place after Italy’s defeat to Samoa had Tonga not beaten the USA in the Pacific Nations Cup.
Instead, Tonga have leapfrogged both Italy and Scotland to now sit tenth with Samoa consolidating seventh spot ahead of Ireland and Argentina. Japan’s first win over Wales on Saturday will also send shivers down the spines of the Scots as they are now in 15th, behind Fiji and Canada, and Scotland’s World Cup pool in 2015 is likely to include the Japanese – as the top Asian qualifiers - as well as Samoa and South Africa.
One of Scotland’s chief obstacles remains the relative lack of professional players in a country where rugby is by some distance the second sport behind football. South Africa have ten times more adult players to choose from than Scotland, and so the desire of Johnson and Dodson to widen the net and use a tour such as this to test how many players at Glasgow and Edinburgh, in particular, have the talent to play international rugby is not only understandable but necessary.
But what supporters being asked to pay as much as £70 for a ticket to an autumn Test, when Scotland should have their full complement of Lions and injured players back, will make of a ‘developmental’ approach may be interesting.