Speaking at a coaching seminar in the Borders, the SRU’s director of rugby and interim national coach said he had been concerned to discover a common belief among internationalists and fans that the chief quality that made Scotland competitive is “passion”.
The Australian, who has coached the Wallabies, Wales and the USA, delivered the keynote address to over 130 coaches in a wide variety of sports at the Scottish Borders Coaching Conference in Galashiels.
He said: “I asked the Scotland squad in the summer if they thought that Welsh players, English players, New Zealanders, Australians or Americans had any less passion when they lined up to sing their anthems. Do they? No. They are just as passionate.
“I love passion. I like to think I’m a passionate coach, and passion has to be there in every sportsman and woman, but it is not something that makes us, Scotland, special. It is a given. If any player I am working with does not have passion for his or her sport then, to be quite honest, they should go and do something else.
“What happens if the performance isn’t good and we don’t win? Do I say it’s because our passion wasn’t up there, and question the players’ levels of passion? You can’t quantify that.
“I’ll tell you what Scottish sportsmen and women have, from what I’ve seen. They have a resilience and work ethic that is not always as common elsewhere. I work with 20-30 players ahead of an international match who would train for 24 hours straight if I asked them to. Sometimes with teams I’ve worked with, if I asked players to walk to the end of the hall and back they would question if it was necessary. I don’t get that here.
“There is also a toughness in athletes that make it to the top of their sport here. They are hard people to knock down; they come back from adversity strongly. That’s not always obvious elsewhere. And those are just some qualities here that we can build competitive teams around.
“At Glasgow, Gregor Townsend and his coaching team are working hard on developing a real ‘toughness-to-beat’ with the Warriors, and it is a big focus for the new Edinburgh coaching team as well, though they’re just starting.
“In rugby, a lot of it comes through defence, where resilience and work ethic are massive in stopping people getting through you. Glasgow have played three games this season against good sides, including the two finalists from last season’s competition. They have won all three and not conceded a try. It is early days but that’s the kind of start that builds on what I see as Scottish qualities.
“I want kids coming through our system to know what we stand for, to know what qualities we have in Scotland and what we need to improve. I’m not saying we don’t work on other areas. Of course we do – we need to get better in everything we do – but it’s important to have something we stand for.”
Johnson added: “You look at great Scottish rugby and football teams, and individuals, from the past: sure, there were some great skills but the toughness and work ethic were clear.
“We could probably talk about a desire not to be beaten in historic battles this country fought, but I’m not a Scottish historian. I’m just a coach who wants to see Scotland recognising what it’s got, making the most of it and not being fooled.
“To say that our greatest strength is our passion is actually almost arrogant because it suggests that other nations are not as passionate.
“We must have that passion every time we play – I hope I’m never in the position of questioning a lad’s desire to play for his country – but we need other qualities, including core skills, ahead of that in the list if we’re to compete consistently on the world stage.”
Johnson was supported by another coach attending the conference, organised by the Borders Sport and Leisure Trust, the former Scotland midfielder John Collins. Now working with SFA age-grade squads, he added: “Scott’s right – we tend to think in Scotland that our passion can overcome other qualities and that it’s what carries us to wins sometimes. It’s not passion that makes Scotland competitive on the world stage. It helps, like any other team, but it is things like our resilience, and the skills and quality of our play that ultimately beats sides.
“Scott is bang on. We have to change the attitude in Scotland that passion can win us games. Of course we need it, but all the top teams have it. I saw that every time I played for Scotland. We need more than that to be competitive at the top level.”