THE Scottish Rugby Union has embarked on a review of the RBS Six Nations, the Scotland management set-up and plans through to the next World Cup as they assess whether new coach Vern Cotter will have the right team in place to achieve success.
In the wake of the worst finish to a Six Nations Championship and a drop from last year’s third place to the familiar fifth spot, the Scottish Rugby Board and Scottish Rugby Council are seeking clarity on the direction of the national management structure. Cotter, though still leading Clermont Auvergne towards the Top 14 and Heineken Cup titles, will also play a role.
The board and council have backed the changes made since Andy Robinson resigned in 2012, the search for a long-term successor and appointments of Cotter and Scott Johnson as the new director of rugby and interim head coach. It seems absurd, however, to imagine that Johnson could continue as Cotter’s backs/attack coach. In fact, were Johnson to join Cotter on the summer tour to North and South America, and South Africa, it would raise a major question mark over whether he and the SRU appreciate the speed with which change is required.
After the 51-3 embarrassment in Cardiff on Saturday, there have been calls for Johnson’s head on a plate, for Dodson to be fired, Lockhead, too, and for the SRU to be stripped from top to bottom and a new structure put in place. New governance, new leaders, new inspiration and more Scottish brains restored to the Murrayfield ship.
The SRU cannot escape the fact that there is a lack of people with a strong knowledge of Scottish rugby going back more than a decade running the ship. Fewer still have experience of success in professional sport. But is the answer wholesale change, once again? Did it work when Jim Telfer moved on in 2003? Or when David Mackay and Phil Anderton were forced out by strong, knowledgeable Scottish rugby men on the union committee, and Ian McGeechan soon followed so disillusioned by it? Did we reap a harvest from the Gordon McKie era?
Some of Scotland’s most celebrated players – Andy Irvine, Ian McLauchlan, Alan Lawson, Gavin and Scott Hastings, Jim Calder and Sean Lineen – have been involved to various degrees with the SRU and/or the pro teams, to what end? Richie Dixon, David Johnston, Telfer, McGeechan, Frank Hadden, Andy Robinson and Johnson all coached the national team and none secured any consistent measure of success. So, is the problem really the chairman, chief executive or head coach? Or are they merely convenient targets for lazy critics?
The real problem, I contend, is the lack of competition for teenage talent, for boys and girls, emerging from youth to senior rugby and then those in the early years of senior and pro rugby. Britain’s first national league brought new, regular, heightening competition to Scotland in 1973-74, and strengthened national squads over the next two decades. But professionalism helped others to catch up by injecting finance into countless teams. With more teams came increased competition. Scotland went the other way, from ten or 12-strong clubs pre-1996 to four and then two provincial teams.
Worse, below that, Scotland failed to invest in the development of youth players and in schools as school sport crumbled and, instead, proceeded to throw ill-equipped, under-prepared players into ever-tougher Test arenas, and hoped for the best. An indication of the poor direction came under Gordon McKie, the former CEO who could not see any requirement for a director of rugby, and the game suffered without that direction. Johnson now has that role and he has two more years in his current contract to make a significant difference.
There are several questions the SRU have not answered well, beginning with why such an important position of “director of rugby” was not advertised. The answer, that they – a group of men not hugely experienced in pro and Test rugby – scoured the world and spoke to several candidates privately before settling on Johnson did not convince. But that has not stopped Johnson from meeting players, coaches, teachers, administrators and supporters across the game, digesting their views on the problems and drawing up proposals.
The proposal for a “Super 8” premier club league is back under consultation after clubs demanded more time to re-shape it. But, once the Six Nations review is written up, Johnson will set about implementing four new academies, at a cost of over £1 million, in a return to a four-district culture that once served Scotland well. A stepped series of age-grade squads will allow young talent to emerge through the South, Edinburgh, North and Midlands/Caledonia and Glasgow, competing with each other, alongside a new schools competition.
Putting aside the fact that he should never have been Scotland’s head coach, I like Johnson and believe that he could be the man to revitalise the game below Test level if given the chance. It has puzzled me how Scottish rugby has waved goodbye to the likes of Telfer, McGeechan and Hadden and then ignored them. I said when he was released in 2009 that Hadden could make a great director of youth rugby with his understanding of the schools and youth game allied to the new understanding of what a pro and Test player required to be successful.
Some people do not like Johnson’s style. It may be the accent or the quips, but the incessant negativity and call for heads that greets any failure is also a rotten part of Scottish sport. Johnson comes from a sporting background none here can match. He saw from the inside the famed Australia institute of sport’s work to turn decades of struggle into Olympic golden glory, and worked with schools, clubs, pro and international rugby in Australia and Wales, two countries that for all their weaknesses – notably the fact that in Australia rugby union ranks about fourth in the list of popular sports and has an ongoing battle to attract numbers while Wales still draws on just 40,000 players – have remained at the top table in world rugby throughout the past decade.
The quips come from an innate desire to ingratiate or entertain, but an hour in Johnson’s company reveals both a deep understanding of rugby and searing passion to make sport work. He has taken to Scotland quickly, his upbringing on the “wrong side” of Sydney battling posh, big neighbours perhaps a factor, and has endeared himself to coaches of different sports across the country in seminars, coaching conferences and dinner appearances.
Specifically, Johnson has studied how to develop schoolboys in Australia and Wales, how to make academies work so that the end product is George North-like, able to step straight into a pro club and Test side and make an impact at the age of 19.
Whether it is possible to replicate systems from Australia or Wales in Scotland remains a great unknown, but could we try? Or should we kick him out and wait for the next mug to accept the task of turning 12,000 rugby players into a world force, in a country that really only comes alive for the sport when the national team plays or Melrose Sevens appear?
Johnson has begun the process and needs time and support to effect the radical surgery the Six Nations has again revealed Scottish rugby to require. He must, however, give it his full attention. If Johnson believes that he could operate as both Scotland’s backs coach and the SRU’s director of rugby then he does not grasp the depth of work involved in either, and in that case would not be the man for the role.