Interview: Enigmatic Scott Johnson reveals his true colours

Scott Johnson says he doesn't know his job title, but knows his job is to pull Scotland together before the Six Nations.  Picture: PA
Scott Johnson says he doesn't know his job title, but knows his job is to pull Scotland together before the Six Nations. Picture: PA
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“JUST do not, whatever you do, compare me to Matt Williams. Promise me that.”

That was not Scott Johnson’s opening remark when we met up last week. That was, in fact, an apology for not agreeing to requests from last June for a Scotsman interview, and an explanation that contrary to his popular image – “which is all bullshit” – he does not actually like the spotlight and was happier in his role with the SRU to stay in the shadows behind Andy Robinson.

However, by the time we reached the end of our lengthy chat, any suggestion that this Sydney boy bore a resemblance to the one that landed here in 2003, and left Scotland’s national team a 
bedraggled mess, seemed as funny as anything uttered by Scots comic Kevin Bridges.

Where Williams was all silver-haired smooth, slippery two-handed handshakes and given to dropping the line that “people think I look like Robert Redford; do you think so mate?”, Johnson was more “f*** that and f*** this; I don’t dance to anyone’s tune mate”. What was intriguing throughout our interview, however, was detecting what was show with Johnson and what was real.

He said often that he doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Too often. So clearly he does. He would just like people to think he doesn’t. He has been hurt. I have chipped in myself. With requests for interviews turned down, we have had to turn to colleagues in Australia, America and Wales for background on Johnson, and some of it was not complimentary. Journalists have termed him a “maverick”, “renegade”, “off-the-wall” or just “nuts”, but he says too few have actually sat and had a coffee with him.

He laughs, a throaty laugh that comes from somewhere deep. From inside rubber factories in Sydney maybe. That is where he would go as a teenager to watch his father work, initially with Firestone and then on his own, and where he would leave school and join in. When his dad, Geoff, died more than 20 years ago due to asbestosis, he returned to what was then an engineering firm, to right the finances.

And this is where we begin to get a feel for Scott Johnson.

Turn away from the headlines about the “long-haired” Aussie turning up to a press conference wearing camouflage kit, having been accused of being a spy for the Wallabies when the British and Irish Lions were touring – rightly – or how he stepped into the breach as Wales coach for three Tests when a player revolt forced Mike Ruddock to walk out a year after 
winning the Grand Slam.

And anyone with a passing interest in international rugby will be sick of hearing his famously controversial description of New Zealand as “a poxy little island in the Pacific; sorry, two poxy little islands in the Pacific”.

Not many will be aware that Johnson brought up two children virtually single-handedly, his wife Lesley having died from leukaemia less than seven years after they had tied the knot and a few years before the couple reached their 30s. For obvious reasons, it is a life story he does not share often. But he nearly cries with pride as we discuss his children and how they have grown and made their own way in the world.

But, what intrigues me particularly is where the bravado comes from. The knack of saying the wrong thing at the right time for the media, and sparking headlines.

That goes further back than the rubber factory, to a childhood spent growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, where rugby league was king and rugby union a girls’ game. “I loved it,” he said, looking back 
enthusiastically, “but, yes, it wasn’t rugby territory, western Sydney. Rugby is largely a white-collar game in Australia, from private schools. I grew up in an area which was very different to that. I went to Arthur Philip High School, which had 1,500 children and 47 nationalities, and private schoolboys were just there to beat on, really.

“I played league, but I liked rugby. My uncle played and he took me to rugby, and my dad went on to coach me and became a big coach in the game in Sydney. So I became an advocate for rugby, and I stood up for it, I guess. I wanted people to like it like me, and some people didn’t like a kid saying that.”

A kid from a working-class family with delusions of grandeur, mocked by the rugby establishment; a curious similarity to the way Scots such as Alan Tait were treated when they went the other way here, from union to league. But Johnson earned respect on the field, playing both codes to provincial level with New South Wales.

“The crossover point came when I was handed a league contract at 17,” he explained. “At the same time I was offered the chance to go on a tour to Europe with the Parramatta rugby team. Now, you have to understand that where I grew up, you never dream you’d get the chance to go on a plane. That was not realistic with the money my dad made. Seeing other parts of Australia was a dream, never mind other parts of the world.

“So, when this tour chance came I thought ‘s***, how good is this?’ We didn’t have the money to fly somewhere, and here was someone paying for me to go to Europe. And that was it for me. No league contract; I’m playing rugby, mate.”

He went on to become a decent player in New South Wales ranks and captained Australia under-21s, which featured a talented young Michael Lynagh. He came through Wallaby trials with David Campese, and even faced Clive Woodward on numerous occasions when the Englishman played for Manly, but while he insists he has no regrets as he recalls missing out on the big tours, with the Wallabies to the UK in 1981 and then again in 1984, the accompanying shrug has a heaviness about it that.

Then, in the early 1980s, Australian rugby was starting to move to a new level with the style of Mark Ella, Campese and Lynagh beginning to create a shift in Australian sport.

Johnson played for New South Wales until his wife fell ill, and he quit the game altogether to nurse her. She died in 1990, and his father passed away two years later, by which time Johnson had stepped back into the family business. He studied physical education and was becoming a well-known and outspoken defender of rugby union, in western Sydney, when an old coach he termed a surrogate father told him “mate, you’re going to have a crack at this because you’re having a crack at everyone else”.

“It probably wasn’t the right time for the family, but it was morally the right thing to do. I had to shut up or put up.”

He took over at Penrith and went down well, being named Club Coach of the Year in 1999, and began to climb the coaching ladder in New South Wales, ending up on the Waratahs staff. He was an Australia A coach when the British and Irish Lions pitched up under Graham Henry in 2001, and his side famously beat the Lions in midweek. He got to know Henry, became a familiar figure at SANZAR conferences and was invited to Canterbury to work with Steve Hansen.

When Henry and Hansen headed to the UK to take over with Wales, he was asked to work with the All Blacks, but declined, and Henry stepped in and asked him to join their revolution of the Red Dragon. He spoke to his son, Jarrah, who was ten at the time. “There’s something about kids that’s just honest, and I go to Jarrah quite a lot when I’ve got a bit of a moral thing going on,” Johnson said. “I asked him what he thought of his dad working for New Zealand and he said straight up ‘not a good idea’. So, instead we came to Wales, a great rugby country that was crying out for a a change of direction. I don’t think there is a country that has made the advancement off the pitch Wales have, when you look at their facilities and structures now, and you don’t often get the chance to make such a difference.”

He admits to a similar feeling here now. He worked with Wales until 2006, taking over from Ruddock for three games in that final championship because he had three games left on his contract before returning to Australia and a job as skills coach with the Wallabies. When Australia were knocked out of the 2007 World Cup Final at the quarter-final stage by England, he was approached by Nigel Melville at USA Rugby and asked if he would pilot a new era for American rugby.

Technically, it lasted nine months, but the agreement was over much earlier than that. Johnson spoke, reluctantly and off the record about the project, but refused to share his side of the story publicly. He railed against reporting of him having walked out on the US to take on a well-paid job at the Ospreys in 2008, in what Jeremy Guscott’s lawyers would term ‘industrial language’.

“It makes me laugh how people just make up their own minds about it, or media stories, making out I walked out on them. People say ‘he’s on the players’ side. Too right I’m on the players’ side! I’m a blue-collar boy. I stand up for players. I take on a job to do it right, to the best of my ability. I get things wrong, but I live by a strong moral compass and try my best. I wanted to do that job right and found myself coming into a situation that just wasn’t right for the players. But people like to pigeon-hole me. Christ! It makes me laugh.”

I give it a minute for the air settle. He has had a few scrapes and, ironically, because he is a media treat in that every press conference with him invariably produces newsy lines if not full-blown controversy, one understands why he is not comfortable in the spotlight. He has a wicked sense of humour, loves a chat and the bigger the crowd the more the chip on the shoulder from the western suburbs has a tendency to re-appear. And he has plenty of stories, from the Aussie spy in the Lions camp to the boat crash in New Zealand while cruising canyons with ex-All Blacks-turned-coaches Robbie Deans and John Mitchell. Or a less funny one, that of a recent and successful two-year battle against encephalitis, where a pounding head regularly left him wondering who he was never mind where he was.

But now, 37 years on from that first, life-changing rugby tour to Europe, the Australian is in another country. And he is in Edinburgh full-time, contrary to the initial plan for him to scout around the southern hemisphere, his grown-up children back in Australia and grandchildren talk occupying the 50-year-old. Yet, within six months of taking on his new job, he finds the man he agreed to help, Andy Robinson, has quit, leaving him holding another baby.

“Life is never is straightforward,” he says, ruefully. “I was asked to come and help Andy and the SRU with a few things, to bring some maturity to the Scotland coaching team, and mentor Gregor Townsend and other young Scottish coaches; to work on skills with the Scotland teams; and to look at development structures here and how they could be improved.

“I have no idea what my job title is, but I don’t care about titles. I didn’t ask to be Scotland coach, but when Andy went, we’re left with young kids and not a lot of time to get ready for the Six Nations, so I said I would take them through it.

“I have a contract through to 2015, which I’d love to see through, but not necessarily in this job. We have a big challenge now to get ready for England in three weeks’ time, and we will be ready, and we will have a squad of boys that will give everything they have for Scotland. There is a lot of talent here, but a lot of work to do too.”

As we conclude the interview, he grabs my hand firmly.

“Remember, he is nothing like me. Zip. The antithesis of what I am. I might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I accept that, but I’ll do my job and earn my stripes. I ain’t Matt Williams. Get that f***ing right!”

And he’d like us to think he doesn’t care what people think? Intriguingly, after regularly having his name preceded with “the long-haired maverick”, he had a few inches taken off the silver locks before this week’s first media conference as Scotland head coach. He cares.

The hair may be shorter, but the “maverick” bit is unlikely to be shed. What he will be judged on over the next two months is Scotland’s performances in the Six Nations. His background, his stories, his approach and likenesses with anyone past or present are irrelevant. But Johnson could fit in quite well to Scottish rugby.