A RECORD defeat and being forced to defend a red-carded player was not how Scott Johnson envisaged bringing an end to his tenure as Scotland’s head coach but the Australian insisted that he remained committed to playing a part in improving the game.
Johnson will hand over to New Zealander Vern Cotter in June, when Scotland return to the Test stage on tour in North and South America, and then South Africa, with a record of just five wins in 16 Test matches.
What will be most frustrating, however, is that Scotland should not have been as far off the title contenders as they were. Just when we thought the nadir had been reached in the manner of the humbling 20-0 defeat to England rather than the scoreline, the Scots plumbed the depths of a record 51-3 loss to a Welsh side that has been a pale shadow of its former Six Nations-winning self in 2014.
Individual errors have proven very costly, and after a loose pass against France ruined prospects of a win at Murrayfield last weekend, on Saturday it was the reckless decision of full-back Stuart Hogg to hit Dan Biggar late off the ball, duly earning only Scotland’s third red card in history.
Johnson admitted it will take time to recover from the embarrassing finale to his tenure, the likely loss of Hogg, at least for Glasgow, to a ban and the task of maintaining belief in a squad that ended another championship in Scotland’s regular position of fifth.
Johnson remains optimistic, however, and believes that irrespective of the results this season to date the Scotland squad is developing into one more able to compete and win matches at the top table of world rugby, and in next year’s Rugby World Cup.
He said: “In the last year we’ve capped about a full contingent of Scotland internationalists. We’re trying to broaden this base over an arduous 24 months [to the World Cup] and I’m pretty happy with where they are going. They are getting runs on the board. You won’t see it just yet but some of these players are going to be stand-out players.
“They can compete athletically and that’s what I like. I’ve been involved with the Welsh team and you look at the athletes they have out there. The rugby skills are important and if they have the rugby skills and the athleticism you can do pretty good damage. We’ve got some really good athletes coming through, and they can play rugby. Are they at the height of their game? No, they’re not. Will they be? Yes they will.”
How can he be so sure this era of potential will transfer to genuine Test-match quality? “I’ve coached international teams and I’ve seen good athletes and good rugby players. I’ve coached against Scotland and one of the things we always talked about [with Australia and Wales] was that we would always ‘out-skill’ them and ‘out-athlete’ them.
“But I’m starting to feel more confident about Scotland now. You look at the lock situation and we have some really good young players coming through. We’ve got two good centres, Hoggy [Stuart Hogg] at the back. Throw in Sean Maitland and Tim Visser and we are starting to get good athletic rugby players.
“The back row is going to be competitive for the next few years. You throw in [Mike] Cusack and [Willem] Nel and I think that’s a pretty good base, I really do.
“We will always be exposed to injuries, so I wanted to make sure that we did the hard yards now. I wasn’t going to run away from it. I keep saying it would be easier to sit back and do the tried and tested, but if we got a bump or two then we would have felt we were in trouble.
“I want to feel that it is competitive and that we have the right people on the floor in our extended squad.”
He was supported by Richie Gray, the towering lock dropped in November and again after the Ireland match in February, but who has come back strongly.
“There is embarrassment obviously,” he said when asked about his feelings after the defeat. “At this level, to get 50 points put on you is tough to take and everyone’s heads are down. We wanted to turn in a better performance than we did and we let everyone down.
“But it won’t affect morale long-term. This was a humbling experience, but now we move into a new phase with a new coach coming in, go on a tour to the Americas and South Africa, and it’s time to build, but also time to start delivering results, to start delivering on the pitch in the build-up to the World Cup.
“We can compete at this level. We have beaten Italy away and should have beaten France last week. Let’s not deny that we were well beaten [by Wales] but if we’d been better after that [sending-off] and didn’t concede those two quick tries, then we could have started chipping away and getting penalties, because we held the ball for long periods of time in that second half. We can compete at this level but [against Wales] we got a lot of things wrong.
“Maybe we were a bit naive. We went down to 14 men but we still shouldn’t have conceded the way we conceded. It’s about getting our systems and structures right, so that when we go out on the big stage we get things right.”
As for Hogg, Gray said the players were acutely aware that his actions had given them little chance of a win, but were also sympathetic with the player, who apologised to them. Johnson did not look to spare him, insisting that it would merely be another test for the youngster in his maturing into a world-class Test performer.
“You know what he is like. He is a terrific lad, a great spark in the team. He’s everything you want in a person and a rugby player. He’s taking it tough, but he should. He just has to man up now and confront it. He will be better for it.”
The salient question is whether Scottish rugby will soon show signs of emerging from a continual period of learning, with or without Johnson’s involvement.