Scrape away the SRU’s trumpeting of the appointment and there is perhaps less to the Australian coach than was suggested yesterday. He is not the experienced international coach one might expect to advise Andy Robinson, his five years in the Wales backroom team, just over a year with Australia and a shorter stint in America incomparable with Robinson’s 11 years with England, Scotland and the British and Irish Lions.
And neither is he the “sage-like” figure we picked up from Robinson’s revelation at the start of the month that received the backing of the new SRU chief executive Mark Dodson to be added to his team. For a sage in a rugby sense, the likes of Brian Ashton, Alan Gaffney or Scots Jim Telfer or Richie Dixon spring to mind. But we understand now that that was not what Robinson had in mind after all. He does not wish a veteran coach to watch over him, but a different and forthright rugby mind to challenge him. Johnson has a reputation for saying it as it is, and what Robinson has been attracted to is a new dynamic and new approach to energise his coaching team.
The Aussie struggles to fit any stereotype, a coach who does not merely think outside the box but can appear to inhabit a world outside the box, with an off-the-wall sense of humour and ageing rock star looks. He is a positive, engaging character, one popular with players as a link to head coaches, and someone who encourages them to enjoy themselves on a daily basis.
He has attacked coaches, players, administrators and officials and turned up at a Bledisloe Cup press conference in 2006 sporting combat fatigues after the New Zealand camp had complained about him ‘spying’ on their codes.
He was assisting the Wallabies in the Tri-Nations when the All Blacks complained about his touchline positioning in Christchurch, harking back to when Johnson was said to have picked up the British and Irish Lions codes by acting as a water-carrier on the 2001 tour to Australia and crouching near their huddles.
He pitched up at the press conference in camouflage army kit with ‘Can I sit here?’ printed on the front and ‘Paranoia is curable’ on the back.
But it is more his ability as a skills coach in developing Welsh players and instilling a belief to perform well on the Test stage that Robinson is seeking. Johnson may not be head coach material, quitting the US Eagles early into a four-year deal to take up the director of coaching role at the Ospreys in 2009, where he has head coach Sean Holley and assistants Jonathan Humphreys, Filo Tiatia and Gruff Rees doing much of the hands-on work, but that is not what Robinson wants.
The Ospreys won the Magners League and just missed the Heineken Cup semi-finals in his first full season and, despite the clear-out of star attractions Mike Phillips, Gavin Henson, Lee Byrne, James Hook, Marty Holah and Jerry Collins and a drop in crowds, the club said yesterday they would be sad to see him go. A forthright character, on joining the Ospreys Johnson said of his coaching style: “I treat coaching no differently to parenting – if someone deserves a clip they’ll get it. I’m not afraid of opinions. I encourage them. But I’ll be looking to sell mine and will get the ship sailing in my way as best I can.”
How he fits in to the new set-up will be crucial. Robinson has been quick to defend Gregor Townsend as his attack coach, but bringing in another former fly-half with expertise in skills and backs coaching reveals that that is where he feels he needs most help.
The back play and general attacking has improved since Frank Hadden’s tenure, but Scotland are still struggling to score the crucial tries that their play deserves. One against Argentina in October would have been enough to turn a World Cup pool exit into a quarter-final place.
The appointment could be taken as an admission that Robinson did not surround himself with enough experience in 2009 but, as well as praising his rugby brain, Robinson insists that he chose Townsend to develop as a future national coach.
Johnson is a choice from left field, but one can not criticise Robinson’s bold desire to push the boundaries in trying to improve Scotland. Whether or not the Australian can make a difference to Scottish fortunes, only time will tell.