Iain Morrison: What did Scott Johnson ever do for Scottish Rugby?

The near universal response to the announcement that the SRU's director of rugby Scott Johnson was returning home to take up the same position within Rugby Australia was to question the veracity of Abraham Lincoln's famous remark. It appears that you can fool all of the people all of the time.

Scott Johnson spent an unsuccessful spell as Scotland coach. Pic: SNS/SRU/Bill Murray
Scott Johnson spent an unsuccessful spell as Scotland coach. Pic: SNS/SRU/Bill Murray

To say that the Scottish public never warmed to the stout Australian is something of an understatement and he proved a useful punch bag for the media too. But, during his reign, Scotland reached their highest ever world ranking (fifth) and now both pro-teams are in contention for a place in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time in history. All this while Johnson was at the wheel so he must have been doing something right… right?

It is easier to state what he got wrong if only because it is more obvious.

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The Australian likes to portray himself as an outsider, swimming against the tide, and he undoubtedly did that when threatening to wind up the Scotland Sevens squad just before they became the only national team to win anything on a global stage, twice, at Twickenham, in 2016 and 2017. Paradoxically Johnson appointed Calum MacRae who coached the sevens team to success.

As Scotland coach himself, Johnson was a disaster, with five wins from 16 matches, three of which came against Italy. Those who defend him say he didn’t want the job but he was originally hired as assistant Scotland coach to Andy Robinson, not as a director of rugby, taking over as interim head coach after the Englishman got his jotters and only becoming DOR in 2013, with Vern Cotter arriving as head coach the following year.

Johnson’s final match in charge of Scotland came against Wales in Cardiff in March 2014. Stuart Hogg saw red and the Welsh ran out 51-3 winners. The Aussie has a reputation as a wit but his attempts at humour in the immediate aftermath of that calamity badly misread the prevailing mood in the press room.

He defended the result, as coaches often do, by claiming that he had broadened Scotland’s international playing base but that is only partly true. The list of players first capped by Johnson is genuinely impressive: Ryan Wilson, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Jonny Gray and Fraser Brown remain at the top of the game although Dougie Fife, Kieran Low and Peter Murchie enjoyed somewhat shorter Test careers. Johnson also continued to pick Johnnie Beattie, Max Evans, Moray Low and Nick de Luca long after they had peaked.

“You look at the lock situation and we have some really good young players coming through,” said Johnson after that Cardiff calamity. “We’ve got two good centres, Hoggy at the back… The back row is going to be competitive for the next few years. You throw in [Mike] Cusack and [Willem] Nel and I think that’s a pretty good base, I really do.”

The two-cap English prop Cusack is one of the luckiest players to represent Scotland in the professional era so for Johnson to single him out as one to watch suggests his expertise in horse flesh is overstated.

And talk of an English prop brings us to the next charge laid against Johnson. On his watch Scottish rugby has been bolstered/overwhelmed/saved, use whatever expression you feel fits, by foreign imports. A quick inventory of professional props shows how much Scottish Rugby has come to reply upon these “project players”. Oli Kebble, WP Nel, Pierre Schoeman, Allan Dell and Simon Berghan were all developed outside Scotland even if the latter two qualify thanks to a “Gretna Granny”.

I am against hiring any project players purely on moral grounds. Every project player hastens the day when club rugby becomes bigger than the international game like in football. But if Johnson insists on importing players he is surely obliged to recruit only the best who will bolster the Scotland squad once they have served their time.

Amongst the “projects” were Anton Bresler, a Namibian-born lock so good he was released by Edinburgh just before he qualified for Scotland and Pieter Rossouw de Klerk, the Glasgow prop sacked for chatting up a 14 year old female athlete at Scotstoun.

Part of the problem was that Edinburgh were coached by Alan Solomons, who was as conservative as he was imaginative… at least when it came to finding excuses. An old pal of Johnson’s from their time in the USA, Solomons was hired by the Aussie and retained far too long as Edinburgh finished eighth, eighth and ninth (Duncan Hodge took the reins before the end of the third season).

However, Johnson has made good calls with the current pro-team coaching duo of Richard Cockerill and Dave Rennie – both men seem at one with their own club’s culture and ethos. He appointed John Dalziel to take over the sevens from Callum MacRae. The Aussie was said to be largely responsible for Edinburgh signing Viliame Mata and, before that, Glasgow’s own Fijian favourites Leone Nakarawa and Niko Matawalu. And Johnson’s appointment of Shade Munro as Scotland’s women’s coach was inspired, utterly transformative, if long overdue.

The Australian has also put in place the right high performance pathways in the form of the four regional academies. They are producing a good number of players who can step straight into the professional arena. So just one year after skippering Scotland under-20s, centre Stafford McDowall, pictured, already has a Champions Cup start for Glasgow to his name. That is how it should be.

This year Scotland U20 squad is reputedly strong. According to one insider there is a “magnificent seven” due to emerge from the year group and some put the figure even higher. The elite pathways system is working and that system was put in place by Johnson (amongst others) albeit with the crucial financial backing of BT following that much-trumpeted £20 million sponsorship deal.

“He has an amazing list of contacts and he was never off his phone… never!” said one Murrayfield insider who worked closely with the Aussie over the years. “He would be talking to people in the Southern Hemisphere throughout the night. The amount of work he did in the background was unbelievable and he understood the game inside out. He did much of the recruitment and while he didn’t watch much if any club rugby, Scott was a regular attender at junior pathway games and age grade games at the elite end of the sport.

“He kept the peace between Gregor [Townsend], Richard Cockerill and Dave Rennie, recruiting players within the budget. He will be a hard man to replace. Scottish rugby will miss him.”

The Australian will leave a mixed legacy. He was at his best when dealing with the big picture on a global scale, at his worst when imposing preconceived ideas from elsewhere upon Scottish rugby without due consideration and consultation.

Super Six may come into the latter category. Just months before it is due to kick off it remains a divisive mess and an imported one at that, lifted lock, stock and barrel from Australia’s National Rugby Championship.

Johnson leaves Scotland as he arrived, clouded by controversy, but he now faces the challenge of his lifetime. If he can turn the Wallabies into world beaters once again, the fast talking Aussie will silence even his most vocal critics.