The Scotland medics insisted that they had not seen a dressing room of players as bashed up as that in King’s Park last week, when 15 players required treatment and three – skipper Kelly Brown and front rows Geoff Cross and Pat MacArthur – were forced off the tour.
Euan Murray has been named to start against the Springboks in Nelspruit tomorrow, but the tighthead prop is still fighting a niggling hamstring injury and reserve hooker Stevie Lawrie is similarly facing a late fitness test on a back injury before he can be assured of featuring in the Mbombela Stadium.
“Our players are not soft,” said Johnson, defiantly. “We were up against a physical side on a fast deck, but a lot of our boys haven’t played for a long time and people forget that. A substantial part of the squad hadn’t played – the Edinburgh boys particularly – so it might just have been that the timing was out on occasions in the game and when the timing’s out when you go to do things, you come off second-best.
“But there’s certainly not a lack of character or anything like that and they’re not soft. There’s plenty of will there. You only have to look at Australia last year [where Scotland won 9-6].
“But it’s Murphy’s Law with injuries. When you don’t need it to happen then it happens. I’ve been down this path before and sometimes it’s a godsend because it forces you to look at your depth pool.
“I can’t question the attitude. We’re sore. We’re bumped and bruised. I’ve never seen an injury toll like that. I half-expected the referee to come in injured as well. It’s amazing. It shows that it was a physical encounter and we’ve lost quite a few and our depth has been tested.
“We know that, but as I’ve said all along we need to make sure our base is broadened and some diamonds will come out of this tour. This is a great opportunity to play against a leading team in world rugby on their own soil in front of a partisan crowd; a wonderful opportunity and we’ll be up for it.”
The squad had to rearrange its week due to a failure to have enough fit players to train at the start of the week, players instead heading to the Kruger National Park and animal sanctuaries nursing battered limbs, while the management were busy making calls to travel agents to arrange three flights home and three out for Jon Welsh, Gordon Reid and Fraser Brown.
Johnson has made seven changes for tomorrow’s second Test, and hands debuts to Glasgow Warriors trio Peter Murchie, who switches with Greig Tonks at full-back, lock Tim Swinson and Tommy Seymour, the winger who joined from Ulster two years ago replacing Tim Visser.
Elsewhere, Ruaridh Jackson returns at stand-off for his first start since Scotland’s RBS Six Nations Championship win over Ireland in February, Scott Lawson is back at hooker for the first time since the Tonga match in November and Swinson partners Jim Hamilton in the second row, with the latter’s wife due to give birth back in England any day now.
Johnson shelved his plan to start David Denton due to the loss of Kelly Brown, and instead Ryan Wilson makes his first start for Scotland, at openside flanker, with Johnnie Beattie and Alasdair Strokosch remaining in the back row.
Greig Laidlaw takes over the captaincy from fellow Borderer Brown, and becomes Scotland’s 113th Test match captain. Welsh, Alastair Kellock and Denton are all named on the bench, with Fraser Brown and Gordon Reid also primed for call-ups should Stevie Lawrie and Euan Murray fail fitness tests later today.
Scotland introduced 23 players to Test rugby during Andy Robinson’s three years in charge and that number could rise to 35 on this tour, with the newcomers relatively late caps, but Johnson maintained that Scotland will reap the benefit of this tour exposure in years to come.
“I said we were going to broaden the base, didn’t I?” he said. “It’s maybe happening a bit quicker than I expected with the injuries, but that just means more opportunities to find out about players in Scotland.
“Some of these changes were enforced because of injury but some we had already planned to make sure that we saw most of the players on tour.
“I wanted to have a look at [Peter] Murchie and [Greig] Tonks at this level so planned to give them a game each.
“Murchie’s form this year has been terrific and he’s great under a high ball, and that’s probably a pretty good place to start against this sort of side. I went out and watched him in training at Glasgow and couldn’t think for the life of me who he reminded me of. It was one of those annoying things.
“And when I was going home it dawned on me who it was. Even though they’re different players, he reminded me of Lee Byrne a bit.
“He’s bright, he’s brave and he’s a late bloomer, like Lee was too. Lee missed a lot of the system in Wales and then he came through and has had a wonderful career. Murchie’s the same. I like his maturity and how he’s hard to break as a final line.
“I watched the first Heineken Cup game at Northampton when Stuart Hogg got hurt early, and I thought Peter was unbelievable.
“Tommy [Seymour] is a kid that every time I see him he surprises me. He’s got a great work ethic, is quite quick and what I really like is that he chases every-thing, and that is important for us.
“With Tim [Swinson], well, he belies his upbringing, he does. Let’s just say that he’s private school and has all the right things in life, but he wears a good big chip on his shoulder and I like that.
“He showed that with Glasgow this year and has been great. He’s an exception to my rule I think and that’s a good thing, so he’s a welcome addition and I’m looking forward to seeing how he can cope at this level because it will be a big challenge for him.”
v South Africa at Mbombela Stadium tomorrow, 4:15pm BST, live on Sky Sports and BBC Radio Scotland
15 Peter Murchie (Glasgow)
14 Tommy Seymour (Glasgow)
13 Alex Dunbar (Glasgow)
12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh)
11 Sean Lamont (Glasgow)
10 Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow)
9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh, capt)
1 Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh)
2 Scott Lawson (Newcastle)
3 Euan Murray (Worcester)
4 Tim Swinson (Glasgow)
5 Jim Hamilton (Gloucester)
6 Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan)
7 Ryan Wilson (Glasgow)
8 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier)
16 Stevie Lawrie (Edinburgh), 17 Jon Welsh (Glasgow), 18 Moray Low (Glasgow), 19 Alastair Kellock (Glasgow), 20 David Denton (Edinburgh), 21 Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow), 22 Peter Horne (Glasgow), 23 Duncan Taylor (Saracens).