VERN Cotter and Scott Johnson will form a new experienced coaching team with Scotland, from whenever Cotter is released by Clermont Auvergne, with the revelation that the SRU’s new director of rugby will remain with the national side.
Though they never made the comparison, there is a feeling that the SRU view the appointment of Cotter, with Johnson doubling up as his backs/attack coach, as a modern equivalent of the veteran Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan double-act, albeit a non-Scottish one.
Johnson took over as interim head coach when Andy Robinson quit in November, but he always hinted at a desire to step away from the top job when he had the chance and return to a more wide-ranging remit in the Scottish game. When Cotter agreed in March to take over the reins as Scotland head coach, Johnson then told SRU chief executive Mark Dodson that he would step into the new director of rugby role, last filled by Ian McGeechan in 2005, with New Zealander Graham Lowe having filled a director of performance rugby remit.
Cotter yesterday spoke of his delight at landing the Scotland job and being able to work with Johnson, even if it does turn out to be from the French side of the Channel until next year, and both men insisted that the fact that Johnson would essentially be his chief as head of the rugby department at Murrayfield during the day, and his lieutenant on the training field, was not a problem.
“Scott will be involved, but we’ve got a bit of experience, so things will be made clear,” he said. “We’re grown men and we’ll get the best out of each other and the best out of the team.
“I see this is as a great opportunity. We’re still all kids really but when I was a kid I used to love the way Scotland played, the loose forwards especially, and those impressions stay with you so to to be part of that organisation building toward a World Cup with the people we’ve got here... it was very hard to say no.
“We have an exciting group. You only have to look at what Glasgow have done this year, the young players coming through, some good old experienced players. You can feel a real passion and I think rugby’s thriving in Scotland at the moment.”
Johnson similarly dismissed the suggestion that it could prove difficult for him to be Cotter’s boss and also his assistant.
“There’s no issues,” he said; “not at all. You need strong coaching teams, strong personalities; that’s not a bad thing. Two managers who always agree is one manager too many. Egos are left at the door and we understand that. We’re grown men with experience and we want what’s best for Scotland. I’ve got Duncan Hodge to look after as a young coach as well and I want to help him through the system. There’s a lot of things involved with the national team and the national set-up, but we understand the roles, and where it crosses the lines.”
The news that Johnson will still be involved with Scotland, however, may provoke disquiet across a game in Scotland that has been crying out for direction in areas such as the development of the club game, youth players, schools and women’s rugby, the improvement of referees and creation of academies. The SRU have been roundly criticised for lacking strong rugby direction at Murrayfield and, while Dodson has acted on that by appointing a new director of rugby, the fact that he is then sharing the role with a hands-on coaching position could suggest a dilution of its effectiveness.
Johnson has already begun in the new role, and news is expected soon on a new academy set-up for Scottish rugby. He stated that he would split his time effectively, with his national duties as an assistant being restricted to the ten weeks of the season, plus tour time, that the squad is in camp.
“It goes back to the international scene and people lose sight of the fact that there are only certain periods of the year when you are hands-on coaching,” said Johnson. “For me the job of director of rugby appealed because there are other things that I can keep my hand in.
“But Duncan Hodge is playing a significant role now [as backs coach] and I came here as part of a regional mandate where I was to mentor young Scottish coaches and I take that job seriously. I have grey hair now and have been around the traps, and on the way I have messed up and done some good things along the way.
“That is experience I would like to pass on. I am really comfortable with the job and as I’ve said a few times, now that I’m a grandfather I want to be able to come back here with my grandkids and be able to say that I left things in a pretty good place.”
Cotter, meanwhile, was equally confident that if he does have to juggle two jobs next season it will not hinder Scotland’s preparation for the 2015 World Cup.
“I don’t expect to be here until 2014, but I will be in regular contact with Jonno,” Cotter said. “You don’t want to get into a situation where you are doing neither job [Clermont coach and Scotland coach] properly, but Jonno’s got the team playing really well, preparing really well and it’s just a matter of staying in contact.
“It’s really just about communication and preparing for the 2015 World Cup. We have a philosophy on how the team should be playing and of course that will develop, so I’m really happy with what they’re doing. A year [to prepare for 2015 World Cup] will be plenty of time because the time is being spent now. It’s just a question of detail.”