Johnson relishes the challenge of leading from the back
Scotland v South Africa:“Different, yes. Very different. A one-off,” says Sean Lamont when the wing is asked about Scotland’s new backs coach, Scott Johnson. Colourful and intriguing also come to mind. Who else would say that Test rugby affords time “to sit back a bit and smell the roses”.
Johnson is the guy who first came to the notice of rugby in the UK when he was seen in improbably baggy shorts pounding the touch line at the Millennium Stadium, yelling and screaming the Welsh team to their 2005 Grand Slam. Alongside Mike Ruddock he helped produce the first Welsh slam in 27 years before things went sour.
Ruddock left, Johnson temporarily took charge, there was plenty of home-spun logic and humour to set alongside his description of New Zealand as “two poxy little islands in the middle of the Pacific”, but after two losses and a draw Johnson was gone. Gone, only to resurface a season later with Australia at the 2007 World Cup, when Johnson and another fascinating Australian at home in the UK, John “Knuckles” Connolly, helped the Wallabies past Wales before coming unstuck against England in a quarter-final in Marseille.
With their contracts over and Australia not about to renew, Johnson’s next brief step was coaching the USA Eagles, followed by three seasons with the Ospreys before sitting down with the Scottish coach, Andy Robinson, and discussing a return to what you sense is his first love, Test rugby.
“It’s the biggest part of the sport so, that’s always an attraction,” said Johnson yesterday after final preparations for today’s Test against the Springboks at Murrayfield.
“Playing against the best is always the test of rugby. It’s hard not to enjoy. It doesn’t mean that you don’t enjoy the other, but what it does do is allow you to sit back a bit and smell the roses. With the cut and thrust every day, you sometimes lose yourself in that. This,” he says referring to a job which gets him back into hands-on coaching as well as development work with other coaches, “is a nice mix of on the field and off the field duties.”
He even says he has not noticed any Scottish concerns about recent moves that have meant the national team has fallen into in the hands of two Australians – Matt Taylor, formerly of Queensland Reds, is defence coach while Johnson handles attack – under that steadfast oak of an Englishman, Robinson. “Love it. Lovely city, lovely people,” says Johnson before going on to explain that concern for the Scottish heritage is top of the trio’s agenda.
“I’ve done this in a few different countries now and you learn from your mistakes and one of the big things for me is respect and we are very respectful of Scottish culture and what has gone before.” Mind you, he also concedes it helps to win over the natives if you start with three victories, as Johnson did in June against Australia, Fiji and Samoa.
“It certainly does and that’s what was great about the summer. And we need to continue that and get a couple of big scalps. We don’t have the biggest player base, so we have to punch above our weight and make sure that we are in the competition regularly.”
Which brings us nicely to today and the Springboks – the side ranked second in the world arriving six days after Scotland shipped six tries to the team seeded one higher, New Zealand. Johnson may say those three summer wins and his arrival were mere coincidence, but it is an interesting fact that Scotland – not a team previously known for scoring tries by the hatful – crossed the All Black line three times last Sunday, something no other team has managed since New Zealand began their current 18-game unbeaten streak.
It took South Africa four games to score that many and their coach, Heyneke Meyer, tacitly admitted concerns over Scotland’s new-found firepower when he named a midfield this week that contained the centre Juan de Villiers, despite saying earlier that he intended to give his captain a much-needed day off.
Johnson added: “One thing I learned about my time in Wales is that you want to get used to playing sides like this and at the end of the day you might come to believe that the best aren’t unbeatable and the only way to know that is to play them regularly. So I say bring it on . . . make it an annual event. The only way to get better is to test yourself against the best.”