BEFORE Sunday’s 12-8 victory over Ireland, six years had passed since Scotland last won two games in a Six Nations campaign, and a dozen since they won two back to back.
And those two wins in 2001 were actually six months apart, as the home game against the Irish was delayed by that year’s foot-and-mouth crisis.
In other words, Scotland have already shown greater consistency in the championship than at any time since five became six with the addition of Italy at the turn of the century. Add the fact that the team already has two more wins this season, with two games to play, than they managed in 2012, and it becomes clear that there has been a notable improvement. Modest, maybe, but still marked. So far at least, then, Scott Johnson has put up a good case for being promoted from interim coach to full-time one. The Australian would be the first to admit that his team are far from the finished article, and after Sunday’s match he was quick to warn that, unless the improvement continues, there will be no third win on the trot when Wales visit Murrayfield next week. But there is already solid evidence of progress, and not just on the scoreboard.
The squad appear happier now than they did during the latter stages of Andy Robinson’s reign. More relaxed when appropriate, but also more keenly focused when it matters most. The all-pervasive tension has gone.
“Human” is one of Johnson’s favourite words, and perhaps that is the key. A warm, affable character, he has given his players a bit more breathing space. “You can’t put in what God has left out,” is a comment the coach has made a few times. He does not pretend to be instilling any magic in his charges. Rather, he is enabling them to express their innate ability – and to enjoy their rugby again, as vice-captain Ryan Grant explained. “It’s always been there,” the Glasgow prop said. “It’s a determined group of boys, and you know a lot of these boys have been kicked when they’ve been down for a long, long time. Camp can be a dark place when you’re not winning: you’re in the same hotels all the time. And I think Johnno’s put a real emphasis on making it an enjoyable place to be.
“It’s tough to lose a game, but you don’t want it looming over your head every day. You have to look at the game and you have to see why you lost, but at the same time we play rugby because we enjoy it and these are our friends. Why shouldn’t we enjoy ourselves? It’s not the end of the world to lose one game.”
Grant, for one, thinks the 49-year-old would be more than capable of doing the job longer term. “Johnno’s a good coach. He knows his rugby inside out and gets on with the boys well, he works well. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t get it.”
Having said that, Grant accepted that he had no way of knowing whether the SRU management would decide to offer Johnson the job. “I couldn’t possibly say. All I can say is I think Johnno is doing a great job. I think the way he’s coaching us and the way we’re trying to play the game is a credit to Johnno, but saying that as well, Matt Taylor has been outstanding in defence [coaching]. You saw that against Ireland – that’s a product of his work. And Dean Ryan and Stevie Scott with the forwards as well. I don’t think you can just credit Johnno with everything.”
Since being invited by Johnson to become interim forwards coach, Ryan has insisted that he will do the job only for the duration of the championship. Grant hinted that the former England No 8 might still change his mind, but insisted that if he did go, interim skills coach Scott would be more than capable of stepping up. “You never know, he might change his mind. There are still a couple of games left to change his mind, so we’ll see. If he does decide to leave, then Stevie Scott’s more than capable. He’s a good coach, he’s been running the lineouts and things so far. So I put a lot of faith in Stevie Scott.”
Whatever the make-up of the coaching team, however, Grant believes that it is vital for the players to focus on continuing their improvement. “We’ve by no means achieved anything great yet. We’ve won a couple of games, but we’ve still got a long way to go – and we’ve still got two tough games to go. Wales have been playing well, and France are so unpredictable.
“So we’ve not cracked anything yet. But I think we’re heading in the right direction, which is the main thing.”