Australia v Scotland: Scott Johnson sees promise in new charges

SHORT, stocky and sporting a mullet that defies the ebb and flow of fashion, Scott Johnson cuts an unusual figure for an attack guru. One Aussie journalist referred to him as a “bogan”, the local equivalent of a rough-around-the-edges redneck.

If it was meant as an insult it’s doubtful that Johnson would take it as such. He talks proudly of his comprehensive education in Penrith and the fact that he only switched from playing league, the working-man’s sport in Australia, to union in his youth because he didn’t think he’d see the world playing the 13-man code. Far from being shy about his background Johnson revels in it and it’s why he spent so many years in Wales, one of the few places where union is a working man’s game.

Whatever his background, much is riding on Johnson’s ability to turn around the fortunes of Scotland’s back line in the here and now. The Scottish attack has been notable only for its lack of finishing prowess in recent years: largely toothless, it’s like being mauled by a carp.

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One try would have seen off Argentina in the World Cup and seen Scotland into the quarter- finals. One try would have been enough to sink England in that opening game of the Six Nations and who knows what that might have done for the Scots’ self- belief? One try per match is the difference between a proud record and a criminal one.

It’s not that the forward pack are world beaters, but they usually come up with enough quality possession to win most matches. If only the Scottish attack was more skean dhu than blunt butter knife, which is why the SRU was happy to pay a king’s ransom to hire the man they believe will make the difference. So will he make a difference?

“I think all that takes time,” says Johnson. “You hear it all the time. You make statements that come back to haunt you. Ask me in a little while. We’re in a people business and I’m just learning the people really. There are some talented kids coming through and there are some good prospects that will be good to work with. Time will tell if I bring anything. It’s a player’s game in that regard and some of those kids have got talent and its up to us to get it out. If we get it out we’ll compete and that’s what we want.

“I keep saying that if you are competing regularly, you’ll be there or thereabouts, it’ll go your way as much as it’ll go someone else’s and I think that’s what we’ve got to get to, and we’re not far off. Look at the Six Nations, they competed in every game. We’ve just got to make sure that it goes our way occasionally.”

“If it was easy to fix, someone would have fixed it and my predecessor [Gregor Townsend] was a good coach and a good lad himself. If there was an easy formula it would have been fixed. There is a new group here and I’m just getting to know them. The beauty of that is that they have done the hard bit because the hard bit is making the chances. The easy bit should be finishing them off, so a little time, a little effort, a little skill they might come, more often than they have – and if they do the score board will start to turn our way.”

So far, so straightforward but controversy seems to tail Johnson like a gum-shoe in a gangster movie. It was Johnson who broke the Lions’ lineout code way back on the 2001 tour of Australia when he stalked the sidelines with water bottles at the ready in order to hear the shouts.

It was Johnson who was fingered as one of the reasons that Mike Ruddock lost his Wales’ job after winning the 2005 Grand Slam. The Aussie took over the team on a temporary basis, losing to Ireland and France and drawing with Italy. He was attack coach with the Wallabies during RWC’07 and Johnson’s brief stint with the USA Eagles was not notably successful.

More recently, he has been director of rugby with the Ospreys and, depending on who you listen to, the Aussie either constructed the side that won the RaboDirect League or he quit just in time to allow them to blossom. It may be that Johnson is not head-coach material but he is a positive and upbeat character, which has clearly rubbed off on to a Scotland squad that is playing in his own back yard… spiritually, if not geographically.

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Newcastle is a working-man’s town that has never before hosted a Wallaby test match. The first eight pages of the local Monday sports paper were devoted to the rugby league and the beloved Newcastle Knights before you could find a single paragraph on the Wallabies but Johnson is happy to fill in any gaps left by the local press.

“I think the nine [Will Genia] is the best nine in the world, I think his form’s been exemplary,” says the man who once helped coach the Wallabies. “I think winger, Digby Ioane, is just superb, he’d beat you in a phone booth, he’s got feet to die for, he’s terrific. The young full back [Luke Morahan] has shown good form this year. The boy on the [other] wing [Joseph Tomane], I don’t know much about but they’re giving him pretty big wraps and the wing is a pretty competitive spot in Australia so for him to get the first spot they’ve seen something in him.

“They’ve picked a very, very potent carrying forward pack. All their tight five can carry and the back three are pretty good too. This is a pretty good side I can tell you.”

What of the Scottish side that he has been helping find their feet for the past week? “It reminds me very much of when I first went to Wales. We’ve got talent, you can see it. We’ve got a couple of kids here who could technically be world-class players and leaders in the world. We’ve got a couple in the spine of the team so its very fortunate.

“But you know, you kick a dog often enough and they start to believe it. It’s very similar to the 2000 Welsh team but its amazing what a couple of victories can do and a couple of big scalps and there’s a belief there. There are a few boys there that are genuine stand-outs and that’s not a bad thing to build the team upon, not every team has that.”

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