Iain Morrison: Wily Scott Johnson is a skilful operator

Not everyone's cup of tea: Scott Johnson was chief beneficiary of a player-power coup which saw Mike Ruddock walk away from the Wales job. Photograph: Craig Watson/SNS
Not everyone's cup of tea: Scott Johnson was chief beneficiary of a player-power coup which saw Mike Ruddock walk away from the Wales job. Photograph: Craig Watson/SNS
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IN HIS recent autobiography the peerless Richie McCaw talked candidly about the Aussie stand-off Quade Cooper with whom he has had a few run-ins. “Players like Quade get sorted. Sooner or later they get their beans,” he wrote and the Kiwi captain has proved remarkably perceptive. You don’t need to know the phrase to know it’s true.

Which brings us to Scotland’s newly appointed interim coach Scott Johnson who, like Cooper, is a controversial Australian. He joined the Scottish management team as senior assistant coach last summer and made an immediate impact. The Pacific tour proved hugely successful with three wins out of three and tries coming against Fiji (three) and Samoa (two), if not Australia whom Scotland played in a monsoon. It might not look much but five tries in three matches was more than Scotland had managed through the Six Nations championship. A step in the right direction under a new attack coach.

Happier times: Johnson, left, and Mike Ruddock plot success with Wales before the latter's acrimonious departure

Happier times: Johnson, left, and Mike Ruddock plot success with Wales before the latter's acrimonious departure

The players reported themselves happy with the new man. Johnson did nothing dramatic but he talked them up and made small but insightful suggestions. Whatever else has been said about the Aussie, at least he knows his onions and he almost always seems to enjoy the support of the players he works with. Read the testimony opposite from former Wales stand-off Stephen Jones if you doubt that.

Even during his brief and none-too-happy stint in charge of the USA Eagles, Johnson pitched his flag firmly in the players’ camp. They needed insurance but weren’t getting it from the governing body. When the Ospreys showed an interest in Johnson he offered, according to one Eagles insider, to do the USA job part-time while donating his salary towards a pool to help cover the insurance bill. Little surprise that the Eagles players were more upset than the management at Johnson quitting his post mid-contract.

Incidentally, he left the Eagles with a record of played six, won one and lost five but two of those “Test” defeats were against England and Ireland’s second-string A sides.

Add his Welsh record into the mix and the international statistics are P9 W1 D1 L7. Less than impressive but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Johnson is smarter than your average bear and boasts some exceptional qualities that endear him to his players. But those qualities are countered by a wayward character – as the Mike Ruddock saga with Wales illustrated.

Back in 2005 the popular Ruddock had led Wales to their first Grand Slam in 27 years but he was fatally undermined the following season by a combination of senior players and Johnson. Ruddock threw in the towel midway through the 2006 Six Nations and Johnson took over on a caretaker basis for the remaining three matches of the campaign. He failed to register a win as Wales lost 31-5 in Dublin, drew 18-18 at home to Italy and then succumbed 21-16 in Cardiff to eventual champions France.

The former Wales skipper turned journalist and broadcaster Eddie Butler wrote an article at the time in which he claimed that Johnson had been censured for missing coaches’ meetings and was accused by Ruddock of undermining him on three separate occasions. One WRU insider claimed last week that Johnson wasn’t necessarily plotting nefariously behind Ruddock’s back. It was simply that the Aussie failed to back his boss when a show of support would have made the difference. When the air finally became too poisonous for Ruddock, his replacement was asked to comment on the Welshman and Johnson offered the less than effusive: “He’s a good coach.”

One year later Johnson had also packed his bags and returned home to take up the job of Wallabies attack coach ahead of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

He left with this parting shot to his erstwhile colleagues in Wales: “Look at my back, it’s so bloodstained. Even Braveheart didn’t have as many bloodstains as I’ve got. Wales is a hard place to work and everyone knows their rugby – supposedly. Whoever comes in will need a coat of armour to not let the knives stick in.”

Johnson was whining that he had been stabbed in the back, the same fate that befell Ruddock. He boasts a typically earthy Australian sense of humour but, on that evidence, the coach’s sense of irony is non-existent.

Six years down the line and Johnson is the top dog at Murrayfield, at least for the 2013 Six Nations and Scotland’s summer tour to South Africa, while Ruddock can now be found in Dublin. He coaches Ireland’s highly successful under-20 team and has taken the Lansdowne club to within one point of first place in the Ulster Bank League. At 53, Ruddock is old school and far too classy to throw any dirt at his former sparring partner.

“Look, if you are playing in the mud on a Wednesday night under lights and you get a kicking what do you do?” the former Swansea flanker asked rhetorically. “You get up and you get on with it. It’s all ancient history. It’s all in the past. But I will say one thing about Scott Johnson, he’s a good coach.”

Ruddock chose the exact same words that Johnson used to describe him all those years ago, which may have been nothing more than chance.

The world is full of strange and improbable coincidences, so here is another one for you. A few weeks back, someone from a sports management company contacted the Scotland on Sunday sports desk and touted Ruddock as Andy Robinson’s replacement.

According to the same source his application is already sitting on Mark Dodson’s desk. So how about it, I asked the man in Dublin?

“I am contracted to the IRFU,” said Ruddock, “and I am very happy here but, at some stage, if an international job comes up we will look at the pros and cons of it, as you have to do as a professional coach.

“You can’t predict what is going to happen in life, we don’t have a crystal ball but my family is here. One son is just finishing university, my other son Rhys is playing in the back row for Leinster and my daughter has just applied to Aberdeen University.”

Surely that is a sign that Ruddock should throw his hat into the ring for the Scotland post if he hasn’t already done so?

“Well, maybe we’ll decide we want to see a bit more of her...” he said, leaving the end of the sentence unspoken.

The SRU are Johnson’s fifth employer in the last six years so whoever is brought in on a permanent basis is likely to be passed by the Aussie on his way out of Murrayfield’s door. If that man was Ruddock – and there are worse candidates dusting off their CVs – it would be suitably Shakespearian revenge for 2006 with Johnson reaping what he had sown.

Sooner or later, they get their beans.