SCOTLAND’S interim head coach Scott Johnson seems to have spent most of the month babbling into microphones so, having booked yet another interview with the garrulous Aussie, I momentarily panic that he might finally have exhausted his bottomless well of words.
I needn’t have worried, and if his team are half as aggressive as their boss then England are in for the fright of their lives. Johnson obviously adheres to the “attack is the best form of defence” school of thought and he duly comes out swinging because, over the course of the interview, I am peppered with the following:
“What’s your angle?”
“What’s this article going to be and I’ll tell you the answer?”
“I don’t read the papers, mate.”
“You have to tell me where this article is going for the integrity of the answers.”
“It doesn’t matter what I say, you’ll write what you want to anyway.”
It’s all good knockabout stuff and, this being Johnson, it is also highly entertaining. He is a character who elicits strong opinions in just about everyone including, it’s fair to say, those who have never met him.
At one point, after I’ve bemoaned Scotland’s lack of leadership, he turns the tables and starts asking me to name the great rugby captains of the modern era. I don’t do a very good job of answering. Richie McCaw was about as far as I got, and only if you exclude the 2007 World Cup, so Johnson follows up with this:
“I think that if you speak to most of the pro teams around the world they would say the same thing. If I spoke to Steve Hansen he would say leadership was an issue with the All Blacks.
“The point I’m making is that my generation would see leadership and kids as different to when we grew up. [The fact is that] Scotland hasn’t had a lot of success and leadership is about confidence. If you haven’t been successful, what do you hang your hat on? Maybe by being competitive and learning things we’ll develop leaders.
“The former [Scotland] captains who were successful were not under the limelight of television and media that comes with the job today. We don’t know how they would cope. They were wonderful for their era but it was a different era.”
Social media has also taken a grip on today’s generation, although Johnson admits candidly that it is not for him.
“I don’t get Twitter. I just don’t get it! I have spent my whole life denying where I was so why should I start telling everyone exactly where I am? I don’t get it but it’s the world I live in and I have to understand it.
“Instead of sitting there and criticising, because that’s easy to do, we have to sit down and find some way to work within the parameters. You can only give me Richie McCaw [as a great leader] – now, is that a reflection on Scotland, is it a reflection on rugby or is it a reflection on humanity?”
His credentials for taking on the Scotland job in the long-term are far from obvious but Johnson’s combination of gruff good sense and that Aussie can-do attitude may just be what Scotland need in their present predicament. If you are going to take over a team then pick your moment and, in some respects, Johnson can hardly fail. Scotland are at an all-time low of 12th in the IRB world rankings, with Italy above them (in tenth place) for the first time in history and even one, solitary victory in the Six Nations would be an improvement on last year. We are where we are, as the interim coach never tires of reminding us, so where exactly might that be in the great scheme of things?
“It’s easy to make a good footie player out of a great skill set,” says Johnson. “We don’t have intrinsically those types of players as yet. We don’t. Not right through the board anyway. We’ve got great kids, tough kids, great athletes. We should be difficult to beat, that’s what we want to be.”
Do Scotland need to lower their ambitions?
“Don’t lower your ambition,” he responds. “Instead, understand how you are going to achieve your ambition and understand what is required. You are not New Zealand or South Africa. The closest country – and this is going to sound patriotic and I’m not a patriotic person – the biggest overachievers in word rugby, are Australia. I’ve said that for a long time.
“Australia should not be good at rugby. It’s hard to work out how they are as competitive as they are. They have a small population and union get the third pick of the litter in terms of athletes [behind Aussie rules and rugby league]. So they get to achieve something because they are there or thereabouts in big tournaments. So things can be done, you can overachieve if you have some structures in place.
“The fact is that we probably haven’t got professional rugby right yet, although we’ve had a couple of goes at it. My understanding is that you had the Borders and then we went to two teams. You need to work out what you’d like and the processes that go into that and if you don’t do that you won’t achieve what you want to achieve.
“I feel Scotland can be at the forefront of rugby on the world map, more so than football. We have to accept that we can be competitive at world level in this game. We have to get our rugby programmes aligned all through so our young players, when they come through our system, are ready to play at the elite level straight away. You don’t want the young players learning on the job.”
All of which makes you wonder what the heck ex-high performance director Graham Lowe was doing over the last three years.
The structure of Scottish rugby still needs an overhaul but Johnson has more pressing issues to address, with the England match approaching like a locomotive down the track and his side winless at Twickenham since 1983. The contrast between the two Calcutta Cup teams could hardly be more pronounced. Scotland were beaten by Tonga, England cuffed the All Blacks. If this was a handicap you fancy the home side might start with about ten players and half of them would have one arm tied behind their backs.
“I was down at the [Twickenham] game and it was a wonderful result England achieved because that New Zealand side is going to go down in history as one of the greatest,” says the man who doesn’t often praise the Kiwis. “We can sit here and make a thousand excuses why New Zealand didn’t show up but the fact remains that England did it, they showed some potency they haven’t shown before. They proved that they can put sides away and that’s their strength.
“That was a very big victory against a formidable opposition. For all the excuses, they put them to the sword. That was a big victory. England also showed in weeks one and two of their [autumn] campaign that they have vulnerabilities like every other team.
“Like most sides that play, on any given day, when everything clicks, they can put sides away. There is also vulnerability in Test match footie and it’s everyone’s job, ours and theirs, to exploit that vulnerability. Whilst we are very respectful of what they have achieved – and I thought that they were very combative against South Africa too, so [we have] respect for their ability – we are confident that there are vulnerabilities that we can exploit.
“We are going into the game with our eyes wide open knowing that, if we take our eye off the ball, we’ll be duly punished. If we adhere to a framework we can put them under enough pressure to put them away. We have the strike power and the strength to do that.”