SCOTTISH rugby has appointed its own “international man of mystery” to lead a revival of the national team fortunes but an intrigued rugby community is hoping that the interim appointment of Scott Johnson as head coach does not become the stuff of film script legend.
The first and last Australian to hold the Scotland coaching reins was Matt Williams and, while it would be hugely unfair on anyone to judge them against Williams’ record, Johnson is another Sydney boy with a chequered background.
If Williams was viewed as a gamble, Johnson is close behind in the bookmaker stakes.
The 50-year-old has only twice before held what have been termed head coach positions, for three games with Wales, in 2006, and six with the US Eagles in 2008. Having been plucked from Australian rugby to help shape the revolution of Welsh rugby by Kiwi Graham Henry in 2001, the former Australia under-21 fly-half and captain, and Waratahs centre, worked under Steve Hansen and then Mike Ruddock until an almighty flare-up with players left Ruddock out in the cold midway through the 2006 Six Nations Championship.
Ruddock had led Wales to the 2005 Grand Slam, with Johnson as his skills coach, and Johnson’s allegiance to the coach was questioned in the affair. He duly took over from Ruddock – who has also thrown his hat into the ring for the Scotland job – and Wales lost to Ireland and France, and drew at home with Italy, before Johnson opted to quit and return to his native Australia.
He became part of John Connolly’s Wallabies set-up in the lead-up to the 2007 Rugby World Cup but departed with the rest of Connolly’s team after a poor tournament. Johnson turned down a swift return to Wales as an assistant at Cardiff but was successful in landing the USA Eagles head coach position.
He signed a four-year contract with a commitment to not only coach the national side but also look to develop the sport further across America. He said then: “I want to make it clear that I’m not coming to America to coach as an Australian. When I’m there, I’m an American. I’m going to immerse myself in the culture and coach to the strengths and weaknesses of the American athlete.
“I’m in it for the long haul now, and it’s important to get this right. In a rugby sense, this is the last frontier and I’m really looking forward to getting the Eagles in a position to be a world force.”
That “long haul” lasted just a few months and six Test matches, however. The Eagles lost to the A teams of England and Ireland, Canada and twice away to Japan. Johnson’s sole win came at home to Uruguay and he returned to Wales.
After New Zealander Wayne Smith turned down an offer from the Ospreys in late 2008, the Welshmen moved for Johnson and he joined as director of coaching, working with director of rugby Andrew Hore and head coach Sean Holley as the Ospreys tried to add fresh substance to their “Galacticos” style. It seemed to work as the Welsh region claimed the old Magners League title at the end of the next season, 2009-10, and repeated the feat last season with a largely re-shaped squad.
By last December, however, it had emerged that he was leaving Wales for Murrayfield, leaving some disquiet in Wales and surprise among Welsh commentators who insisted that he was not the coaching power behind the Ospreys.
His role was never wholly clear, outside Liberty Stadium at least, and, on leaving, Johnson said: “There’s a lot of misnomers about my job and the instructions I was given here.
“The region felt the long-term future depended on growing from within and developing, whether we are talking about coaching or playing, and my mandate was to try to make it sustainable for the region and wasn’t to technically just coach the Ospreys team.
“Sean Holley was head coach and my role was to get a plan in place for the younger ones to come through.”
Scotland suffered a Six Nat-ions whitewash but, much like Frank Hadden had garnered a final year in post after replacing his assistants in 2008, Robinson stayed on, with Johnson and Queenslander Matt Taylor taking over from Townsend and Graham Steadman respectively in June.
Mark Dodson, the SRU chief executive, was sold on Johnson’s pedigree by Robinson and hailed him as a key figure in the plan to turn around Scottish fortunes. He hired him as senior assistant coach on around £200,000 per year, and agreed that Johnson could spend much of the year home in Australia with his family.
Dodson also said that Johnson would have a role in heading up recruitment of players around the globe, but that thinking changed and Sean Lineen was handed that role in the shake-up that saw the Australian take over as attack coach from Gregor Townsend.
Why Robinson went for Johnson may not be a mystery as it was a bold effort by the Englishman to open himself up to fresh challenge and Johnson is known for being a straight talker who thinks outside the box and is not afraid to offer contrasting views.
There is more of a mystery over why the SRU might feel he is the right man to become head coach of the Test squad. Johnson likes the image of being something of a renegade, a character who cannot be pigeon-holed, nor tamed, and while a journalist’s delight at times with his headline-grabbing put-downs and flippant remarks – the most famously controversial being his description of New Zealand as being “a poxy little island in the Pacific; sorry, two poxy little islands in the Pacific” – he has not been popular with a number of past players and elements of the media due to a recalcitrant style.
He has, however, endeared himself to Scotland players so far through the blend of a sunny and humorous disposition and clear knowledge of attack and improving rugby skills. It helped that his first three matches alongside Robinson ended in wins over the Wallabies, Fiji and Samoa, and the fact that Scotland scored three tries against New Zealand buoyed players even in defeat last month.
There was little doubt that he would take over from Robinson, it now appears, as Dodson looks for some consistency after the shock of Robinson’s departure, but the chief executive is not yet given to handing him the role on a permanent basis.
The fact that he has been given the reins not only until the end of the Six Nations, but also to the June tournament in South Africa, raised eyebrows yesterday, but that may owe more to the fact that Johnson’s contract was begun in June last year, and so if he is to be replaced by another it will cost the SRU less to split with the Australian at that juncture, than any deeply-held belief that he is the man to spearhead Scotland’s push to the 2015 World Cup.
It could also be that Dodson has his eyes set on someone in particular, with a Super Rugby coach occupied until the summer. Dodson has a number of applications already on his desk, and he could become a genuine hero if he was to persuade Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks coach, to come to the land of his forefathers, and help to also develop Scottish coaches.
But Johnson now has a head start on potential rivals. Stuart Lancaster was not the RFU’s preferred choice but an interim appointment through the Six Nations. However, England’s performances and Lancaster’s popularity earned him the role full-time. Johnson may have the same opportunity if Scotland can win in the Six Nations and if he wishes to hang around this time and take it, and let the mystery around him subside.