SCOTT Johnson asked a favour ahead of this year’s Six Nations Championship – would the media please (and this would be hard) try not to focus on the results and instead focus on the team’s performances.
If you get the performance right then, 99 times out of a hundred, you get the result that you deserve.
If we take the Scotland interim coach at his word and focus on the team’s performances, then we’ll all need to lie down in a darkened room with a cold compress on our foreheads. Results have outstripped the Scots’ performances like Usain Bolt would a one-legged man.
So far Scotland have been high in spirits and workrate but low on continuity and quality, with the notable exception of the finishing against Italy and excellent set-piece work.
That all elicits an interesting philosophical question. Would you rather see Scotland playing very well and losing or playing very badly and winning?
Obviously, both of these options are preferable to watching Scotland playing very badly and losing, which they managed in Rome in the 2012 Six Nations and in Aberdeen against Tonga. But the answer isn’t straightforward and Johnson declines to venture down that particular avenue.
“It’s a leading question because all you want is a headline with ‘Scott Johnson says this’,” is the coach’s initial answer before he fleshes out his response. “It’s a perception of what’s good rugby. There was a lot of good out there on Sunday [against Ireland], a lot of great rugby out there, great effort, great endeavour, great things, but that’s not rewarded half as much as great tries. It’s not spoken about. The performance was good in areas of the game and it wasn’t so good in other areas.”
But isn’t Johnson simply describing a level of commitment and endeavour that Scottish fans have a right to expect from anyone wearing the thistle on their breast?
“There was a lot of skill needed to stop tries but that was skill without the ball,” Johnson responds. “Geoff Cross’s tackling was skill without the ball. You say endeavour. I’ve seen great endeavour and missed tackles! So are we saying skill is only with the ball? Pushing them off the ball at the scrum, what about that skill? What about dropping the lineout when they are under pressure in the maul? Is that a skill or not? Where do we stop and start the skill set? Is it only with the ball?”
As ever, Johnson challenges the conventional, but even he knows that the Ireland game was a blue moon event. Five of this year’s nine championship matches so far have been won off the back foot in terms of the possession statistics, but none with anywhere near Scotland’s starvation rations. That astonishing, against-the-rub result is not likely to be repeated in our lifetimes – let alone next weekend.
When sitting down with his fellow coaches this evening to discuss team selection for the visit of Wales on Saturday, Johnson has areas of concern, particularly at stand-off and both the front and back rows of the scrum.
There is surely a case for Duncan Weir starting in the No.10 jersey, although Ruaridh Jackson hasn’t had much of a chance to show what he can do on the front foot.
The breakaway question is also a live one. For all Kelly Brown’s excellence – he heads the tackle and turnover count after three games – the Scotland skipper will come up against the only genuine openside flanker in the championship next Saturday and Johnson is very obviously a fan.
“Justin Tipuric. He’s the standout player,” says the Aussie of the Welsh flanker who played under him at the Ospreys. “He’s a great athlete, great skills, just a standout player. He’s a Ross Rennie type but harder on the ball and better in the air at the lineouts so he’s a fantastic player.”
The lopsided composition of the Scottish back row, too many tacklers and not enough carriers, is unlikely to change because there are almost no openside flankers fit enough to call upon. John Barclay is just back after a long lay-off and Ross Rennie has yet to play after his autumn injury, although Johnson won’t rule out Chris Fusaro.
“You want a carrier in every row,” says Johnson. “Johnnie Beattie’s numbers have been fantastic. I’m well happy with him. It’s about trying to get the balance right but we haven’t had a seven available for selection. Kelly Brown, by his own admission, is not a seven but he’s done a great job. We have Chris [Fusaro] in the bank. You know you can go to him. There’s a myth that he’s too small but he’s the same weight as [Australian flanker] Michael Hooper and he did all right.”
The other issue confronting Johnson is in the front row, where Geoff Cross played the game of his life last Saturday and will probably be rewarded for his efforts with a place on the bench behind the muscular Christian soldier that is Euan Murray.
Johnson rates the Welsh pack as the best scrummagers in the championship, at least when Paul James replaces Gethin Jenkins in the front row, and he looks likely to recall the cornerstone of Scotland’s set scrum.
“Euan [Murray] was outstanding in the first two games. I didn’t realise how good he was until I coached him and then it dawned on me how much work he does.”
And, finally, we get to the rush defence employed by Wales, which has proved a tough nut for Scotland to crack in the past. The Scots conceded three interception tries while attempting to circumvent the tactic when Italy employed it in 2007 and, under Shaun Edwards, the Welsh will want to hurry Scotland’s attack out of the game. It’s almost a trademark and everyone knows the rush is coming but that doesn’t mean they know how to avoid it.
“They [Wales] haven’t done anything different for five years and I like that,” says Johnson. “Sides are confident enough to know what they are. It’s about understanding what you are.
“It’s as much about people and what they want to be and not deluding yourself. I’d like to be Brad Pitt but the reality is different.
“I’m trying to avoid this up and down ride. Some days you won’t be as good as the opposition. Sometimes you do that but I don’t want us to have an identity crisis. Know what we are, know what we’re good at and keep doing it.”
Only, he might have added – a little bit better.
It’s early days and this Scotland squad is still searching for its own, authentic voice, but at least their eloquent Australian coach has everyone singing from the same songsheet.