Scott Johnson on a mission to nurture new talent

Scott Johnson celebrates Scotland's Six Nations win against Ireland. Picture: SNS
Scott Johnson celebrates Scotland's Six Nations win against Ireland. Picture: SNS
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A YEAR ago Scott Johnson was one of the few coaches around the world whose name had never been linked with Scottish rugby but, 12 months on, he is committing himself to solving the age-old problem of maximising Scottish talent.

He did not put it like that at Scotstoun yesterday, in his first interview since being appointed as the SRU’s director of rugby. Johnson used his now familiar ‘I’m not saying I can cure all ills, I’m not’ refrain. But, if he is successful in what he and Mark Dodson, SRU chief executive, are challenging him to achieve, then that will be the result.

It is a bold move, both in the individual selected and the nebulous appointment process, but Johnson believes he has the ability to make a significant difference to the size of Scottish rugby’s talent pool and how it is best developed.

But, first of all, why did he opt for the director of rugby role rather than stay on as Scotland’s head coach, having been given the choice? Johnson explained: “I said from day one that I would make the decision I believed would be in the best interests of Scotland. I looked at both with Mark and we discussed it, and had a look at some candidates, and I’m pretty happy with where we’ve finished on the coaching front.

“When you coach nationally there’s a lot of dead time and I get bored easily. I need to be involved in things. That’s my nature. I was fortunate to be afforded the part of seeing Wales evolve and challenge, and I liked the way it finished in many ways.

“I’ve just become a grandad and, in ten years time, I’d like to be able to bring my grandkid back here and be able to say I’ve had a positive influence on the place. That’s a big driver for me.”

Putting aside obvious concerns over why Johnson was able to choose between the top two roles in Scottish rugby, the Australian shrugged off the question of whether he himself had been surprised by the swift elevation from Andy Robinson’s coaching set-up to national coach and now SRU director of rugby.

“That’s what happens in life,” he said. “I’m not sitting here saying I know all the ills. I don’t. I’ve always said everyone’s job is easy until you have to do it. I’m not silly enough not to seek counsel either. So I’m not coming in saying I’ve got all the answers. I don’t. But it’s an exciting opportunity to do that.

“This is probably the one sport worldwide [team sport] where Scotland could really compete if we get our systems right. That attracted me. There is a perception out there that that [Scotland has fallen behind] is probably the case, from where we sit in the world rankings. The reality is different. Other countries have probably taken rugby to a different level, but it’s our objective to do that.

“We have a population of five million plus and we need to increase our playing base. That won’t be an easy thing to do, but we need more kids playing rugby, and more kids competing, and more competition at kids’ levels so that we have competition for places.

“You [media] will have opinions on the game in Scotland from far more depth than I have as I sit here right now but the fact is, if you want to be good at something, you’ve got to make it more important, and that’s what we’re trying to do – making rugby more important in Scottish eyes – and if we do that we’ll improve.”

Johnson similarly shrugged off questions over the SRU’s new strategic goal of winning the World Cup in 2015 or 2019, insisting he would focus on what he could control, and that was putting Scottish teams at all levels into positions where they could compete with the top nations more regularly. This, he said, applied to age-grade sides, club teams, sevens, women, the professional teams and national squad. He has been involved in discussions over the past six months with Robinson, ex-director of performance rugby Graham Lowe and others within Murrayfield over plans for a different academy system and a new structure – and academies across the country, run by the SRU but with players strongly aligned with local clubs, will be one of his early roll-outs.

Dodson insisted that he had looked at various candidates for the position inside Scotland and elsewhere, but he did not hide his belief that Johnson ticked all the boxes with his experience. So where does Johnson feel his experience might be best fitted to improving Scottish rugby?

“The greatest experience in teaching probably comes from the thoughts of others and mistakes people have made,” he said. “You learn so much from the ills of the past.

“I’m not going to be here to make massive changes, but to solve little issues and make rugby important. Competition at all levels is so important and we need kids to learn to compete.

“Coming from a country where we’d argue over marbles, we need kids at all levels, whether they are at Edinburgh or Glasgow, getting to the next level. Just because we’re starting academies, it doesn’t give you a divine right to success. You’ve got to compete for your place. You’ve got to learn to compete at all levels.

“Competition is a good thing in sport because you can’t hide from it. I’ve seen mistakes in academies in the past, where it has just been about giving kids opportunities, and they’ve become like protected species. It’s not about that. It’s about you’ve got to give something up to get that opportunity – put something in. That’s where the club system plays its role.

“It’s about the humble pill. You’ve got to go back and learn your craft, do what you need to do, and compete, and at the end of the day you’ll come out OK.”

There was much merit in what he said there, but any supporter in Scottish rugby could pinpoint the same problems in the SRU’s faltering development system where talent is sucked into the union’s 17 to 21-year-old vacuum and many are lost.

Johnson grew up in a competitive Australian sporting system through the 1970s and 1980s, when the Australian government put in place world-leading talent identification and development systems, with academies across a host of sports.

He also came from the wrong side of the fence, a state schoolboy who didn’t want to follow the expected route to rugby league but play union instead, mainly the preserve of the private schools. Johnson saw success in both areas, and that experience could be highly valuable to Scottish sport, if the delivery is well conceived and Scottish sport is ready to listen.