The ever-entertaining Scott Johnson, holding Scotland’s coaching reins until Vern Cotter arrives next summer, was talking about Nessie yesterday.
No one was quite sure why – he was discussing “unconfirmed sightings” of the ball at the breakdown. Nevertheless, the Australian would probably welcome the monster’s height and weight in his pack following last weekend’s line-out malfunctions and the physical bashing handed out by South Africa. Yet that is not where Johnson’s biggest problem lies, not least because not many sides escape being monstered by the Springboks.
This afternoon against Johnson’s home nation, Duncan Weir will start in the dark blue No 10 shirt, the third different wearer of the jersey in the last four games. Fly-half is Scotland’s problem position and over an autumn that has been all about No 10s, from reminiscing over Jonny Wilkinson to praising Dan Carter’s century, admiring Aaron Cruden’s promise, Quade Cooper’s mercurial brilliance or Owen Farrell’s dependency, that has become ever starker.
Ruaridh Jackson, after such a bright start to the season with Glasgow, is back on the bench following an error-strewn performance last weekend. The other contender, Tom Heathcote, so highly thought of by Andy Robinson, Johnson’s predecessor, cannot get a game for Bath – kept out of the side by George Ford, one of England’s brightest talents.
Facing an Australian team that has shorn itself of some of its better players – suspending six for drinking in Ireland last week – and is coming to the end of a mentally and physically gruelling season, Scotland have an opportunity to right the wrongs of last weekend, when they gifted top-class opponents try-scoring openings. If they are to do so then Weir, winning his eighth cap, will have to play a leading role. Australia, such impressive winners in Dublin, have made eight changes in their match-day squad but still have Cooper and Will Genia to direct proceedings.
Despite, or perhaps because of, frequent chopping and changing, Johnson has yet to find Scotland’s ideal half-back combination, or rather the man to partner Greg Laidlaw.
Jackson and Weir both play for Glasgow, with Jackson currently the first choice. Combine the two – Jackson the more adventurous, Weir the more solid, particularly with the boot – and you have the answer. Gregor Townsend, the Glasgow coach and Scotland’s last match-winning No 10, has been working with Weir to broaden his game. His last start came in the Six Nations against Wales, earning a place after coming off the bench to replace Jackson against Ireland and shining. But over the summer Johnson went back to Jackson, after a dabble with Heathcote, who may yet prove the best long-term bet if only the 21-year-old can get some regular rugby. And so it goes on.
The issue is further complicated by the probability that Scotland’s most dependable No 10 will actually be at No 9 today. Laidlaw had a run at fly-half last year but Johnson moved him back to his original position at scrum-half and Laidlaw’s success there – he was unfortunate not to make the Lions squad – means there he will remain, certainly while Johnson is in charge.