FACING the Six Nations media for the first time at the annual London tournament launch may disorientate some new faces, but Scotland’s interim head coach Scott Johnson was at his playful best yesterday.
The 50-year-old Australian renewed acquaintances with some Welsh journalists, who remember him well, some not fondly, from his time with the Wales national side and the Ospreys, and Johnson admitted to them that he felt he had changed quite a bit as a person and a coach since first stepping into the Six Nations under Graham Henry’s wing in 2001.
But his natural ebullience was quickly apparent and he was undoubtedly the most entertaining coach at the event. Asked about the fact that England would head into the Calcutta Cup off the back of a win over New Zealand while Scotland head south with defeat to Tonga most fresh in their minds, and whether he felt he would use the Scots’ underdog status as motivation, he laughed.
“Are you saying we’re the sad kids from the north coming down to the south, that no-one gives us a chance?” he said, with a wide smile.
“We are the sad kids from the north, haven’t got many rugby teams playing, a small population base and we don’t give ourselves much of a chance do we?
“That’s what some are saying but we’re saying something somewhat different to ourselves, maybe. We’re saying we want a competitive team and the beauty of coaching Scotland, as is the beauty of coaching Wales or Australia, is that there is an underlying will to ruin a party at Twickenham and I’m quite enjoying going there with the same mindset.”
Asked later whether the concerns of his opposite number, Stuart Lancaster, over some injury problems in his side might help Scotland, he replied: “Am I getting emotional when you’re talking to me? A long injury list? So that just leaves them with about another 40,000 players to choose from. That’s a sad story that.
“We don’t have any injuries up our way. We completely don’t get injuries, Scotland, when we play. It’s never happened, so it’s a sad story.”
The room erupted in laughter. Johnson did it in a funny way, not malicious, not with a chip on his shoulder, but clearly he was making a point about where his concerns lie. He is a character who looks beyond typical excuses.
But, for all that it brought a welcome lift to what can be a necessary but monotonous procession of coach and player interviews, what most people are more interested in is whether he can coach and, specifically, whether the affable Aussie can turn Scotland from Six Nations under-achievers into winners.
He dismissed the suggestion that he might emulate Lancaster and turn an interim appointment into a full-time one by winning a handful of games in this championship, insisting he was not interested in his position, rather the ability of his players to gel in the course of the next ten days.
And, when Lancaster’s suggestion that Johnson might benefit from being “interim”, and that it might bring a “nothing to lose” mentality was put to him, he dismissed that too.
“People say we’ve got nothing to lose and say there’s no pressure, but the realities of this job are that I’ve got to work every day and make sure that I give everything that I’ve got to give. That’s no different to your job, it’s just that I’m in the spotlight to do it. That’s the pressure and I want that pressure within this squad.
“I’m not going there thinking there is no pressure, or nothing to lose. We’ve got to perform well and we don’t want to go there thinking anything other than that.
“I can’t ensure that, but we’ve proven over the last five or six years that we can beat anybody on our day. Consistency has been our biggest challenge.”
The English media, in particular, were keen to hear how Dean Ryan fitted into the Scottish coaching set-up and Johnson explained that he wishes to promote young Scottish coaches but that he wanted a harder, more experienced individual leading his forwards pack in the next two months.
“When we were left in the situation we were, at the forefront of my mind I wanted someone in the changing room who was mature, had been there and could control a changing room,” he said.
“When I went to Scotland, part of my mandate was to help develop Scottish coaches and I was enjoying doing that, but I didn’t want to put them at the forefront for a short period of time. I needed to control the shopfloor.
“I knew Dean socially and enjoy his company and, when I asked him, I was really glad when he said ‘yes’ and, in the short time we’ve had, I’ve got everything I wanted in the person. He’s a good bloke, good rugby man, a tough b*****d and that’s a good thing for us and for me personally.”
But, asked what would mean success to him, and invited to suggest a target, the smile dropped, Johnson sat back and, recalling how he has changed in the past decade, spelled out how he had learned that improvement at international level comes in small steps rather than leaps. We will probably hear the phrase “chasing rainbows” a few times in the weeks to come.
“One thing I have learned is that if you chase the end before you get the blocks in place, you’ll never reach the end.
“I don’t want to chase rainbows. We’ve got to work on what we do well and, if we’re doing that, the ‘Ws’ and the scoreboard will look after themselves. I don’t want to get in front of ourselves. We can ill afford to do that.
“So I’m not going to focus on that. We know, basically, what we deem a success but I’m not going to share that with you. The team needs to focus on what it needs to do and do it well. We’ve got some positions where we’re still finding out about some kids and we’ll have some surprises as well.”
He added: “We’ve changed some personnel and we don’t know what the outcome will be. We’d like to think we’re taking the team in a slightly different direction.
“We said we’re going to pick a team on form and future and the future is a hat I wear for Scotland, but we also need to accept that we’re in a competition and that’s the ‘now’. And we can’t tinker with a lot. We just have to do what we do better and more regularly.
“It is a fine line. We showed glimpses in both games in the autumn Test against New Zealand and South Africa, one and two in the world, so we’ve got something in us and, if you want to under-rate that, do it at your peril.”
SATURDAY 2 FEBRUARY Wales v Ireland (13:30) Millennium Stadium England v Scotland (16:00) Twickenham
SUNDAY 3 FEBRUARY Italy v France (15:00) Stadio Olimpico
SATURDAY 9 FEBRUARY Scotland v Italy (14:30) Murrayfield France v Wales (17:00) Stade de France
SUNDAY 10 FEBRUARY Ireland v England (15:00) Aviva Stadium
SATURDAY 23 FEBRUARY Italy v Wales (14:30) Stadio Olimpico England v France (17:00) Twickenham
SUNDAY 24 FEBRUARY Scotland v Ireland (14:00) Murrayfield
SATURDAY 9 MARCH Scotland v Wales (14:30) Murrayfield Ireland v France (17:00) Aviva Stadium
SUNDAY 10 MARCH England v Italy (15:00) Twickenham
SATURDAY 16TH MARCH Italy v Ireland (14:30) Stadio Olimpico Wales v England (17:00) Millennium Stadium France v Scotland (20:00) Stade de France