Sam Johnson on his Scotland return, the need for improvement and his first taste of playing with Duhan van der Merwe

Sam Johnson made a welcome return to the Scotland backline in Florence on Saturday and the Glasgow centre showed flashes of creativity to suggest he could be a useful asset against France this weekend.

Scotland centre Sam Johnson holds off Italy tighthead prop Giosue Zilocchi during the Nations Cup win in Florence.
Scotland centre Sam Johnson holds off Italy tighthead prop Giosue Zilocchi during the Nations Cup win in Florence.

Fabien Galthie’s side will pose a tougher test than Italy, even if shorn of the talents of injured stand-off Romain Ntamack.

Scotland’s Nations Cup victory in Tuscany was laboured but Gregor Townsend’s side scored four tries and could have had another had Johnson not been penalised for a forward pass.

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The Aussie-born No 12 looked to have played in Duncan Weir in a smart second-half move involving Chris Harris but the score was disallowed by the TMO.

Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe scored his second try in his second start for the national team.

“I knew it was a forward pass when I threw it,” admitted Johnson. “There was someone right behind me, but I think I probably had a bit more time than I realised. I was just trying to get it out of my hands to Duncan but I knew straight away that it was forward.”

Having missed the start of the season with a knee injury, Johnson is finding his feet. A couple of games with Glasgow paved the way but the centre admits stepping up to Test rugby was tough.

“It wasn’t too bad to begin with, but I was beginning to search for my lung around the 60-minute mark,” he said. “It was a completely different tempo and pace to club rugby. This is my third game back now so it’s all about trying to get match fitness. We’ll see what happens when I get back and see who Gregor picks for next week.”

Johnson dislodged James Lang from the starting XV in Florence and it will be interesting to see if Townsend sticks with the Warriors centre. There is also intrigue around the wingers, with Sean Maitland under consideration.

The Saracens man scored two tries in Scotland’s 28-17 win over France in the Six Nations in March but has had an inactive autumn after blotting his copybook while on Barbarians duty last month. He was one of a number of players who broke coronavirus protocols by leaving the team hotel to go to the pub.

He was axed from the Scotland squad to play Wales and then failed to make even the bench for the Italy match. Townsend may now feel the player has paid his dues.

Having said that, the coach spoke warmly about Duhan van der Merwe’s performance in Italy after the Edinburgh winger scored his second Scotland try in his second start.

Johnson was similarly impressed by his robust talents.

“That was my first time playing alongside Duhan,” Johnson said. “He’s a great runner, isn’t he? He’s a big, fast, physical man, so it’ll be key for myself or anyone around him to just give him the ball and allow him to pin his ears back.

“If we can get speed of ball and outflank the defensive line then hopefully that opens up numbers out wide for guys like Duhan. So probably the biggest things [to improve] are our contact area and the set-piece, because from a back’s perspective it just felt like we weren’t getting much first-phase ball. I don’t know why that was, but if we can fix it this week that’ll be key for going up against a tough France team.”

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