His remit on joining Andy Robinson last summer was a broad one, to assistant and challenge the national coach, help to mentor up-and-coming Scottish coaches, look at the development of young players and work to improve player skills across the professional and international structures in Scotland.
Within six months he has found himself stepping in again for the national team’s head coach. The last time was in 2006, when having assisted Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Mike Ruddock in coaching Wales, the latter to the previous year’s Grand Slam, he was left holding the reins when Ruddock fell out with leading players, who ultimately refused to play for him. Johnson agreed to do the job for the final three games of the tournament, losing two and drawing one, before he took up an already planned move to the Wallabies.
Now, however, he has no plans to move elsewhere this summer. He did expect to be in Scotland at least until 2015. The picture has changed and, though still operating off the same contract, he now has a very specific short-term remit: uncover improvement in the Scotland Test squad and avoid another humiliating RBS Six Nations whitewash.
It is understandable, therefore, if he has not thought much beyond March, and when asked if he viewed this in the same way Stuart Lancaster had with England in last year’s Six Nations, as an opportunity to prove himself the best candidate for the job full-time, he was clear that that had not been the motivation for taking it on.
“I didn’t come here to do this job. I came to work with a guy that I really liked and I really respected,” he said.
“I’ve agreed to go through to the summer and then I’ll do what’s right and proper. I’ll sit in front of the board and we’ll make a decision for both parties, what we think is in the best interests of Scotland, not what’s in the best interests of Scott Johnson.
“If they and I determine that it’s me then I’ll have a look at it. If we determine that it isn’t, that’s the right thing to do. There’s no issue there at all.
“I did it because I thought it was the right thing for the team. They needed to compete in a tournament and I was there to do that, and so I agreed to do that. We will reassess that in June/July.”
He clearly has a level of enthusiasm, however, that played a key role in the SRU turning to him, not to mention his experience in working with Wales and Australia. His experience more recently with Scotland, over the past six months, was however what persuaded him that he should take on the interim role and could achieve something with it.
“I’m very lucky in that we went down to the south and in my first time with the team we had great success, so I saw first-hand what the team could actually do.
“They came off a not so successful Six Nations and went down and beat Australia, using the inclement weather and all that, which suited us. Certainly Australia used that as an excuse. But then we went to Samoa and faced a very formidable Samoan team that was celebrating 50 years of Samoan independence, in 38 degrees, weather that didn’t suit us well, and did really well against a nation at the forefront of world rugby now and a very good side.
“I was very lucky there. And then we come to the autumn and come up against one and two in the world and did some good things.
“We did some good things in both games,” he repeated, showing the belief he also has in the current squad. “The fact is we were out of the games [against New Zealand and South Africa] at crucial parts and let ourselves down by mistakes and got duly punished for that. But we weren’t far off in those games. We let ourselves down with mistakes that we can fix.
“Then we came to Tonga and yes that was disappointing, but that’s not the Tonga side of ten years ago. They’re professional rugby players and a good side. We did not play well and we can do better, there’s no doubt about that, but Tonga is not a bad side and have beaten some good opponents.
“The reality is that if we get our part right, the spine of the team is fit and healthy and doing our part right we’ll be there or thereabouts, and that’s all you can ask in a contest. We can sit there and say we want to win, but there’s only ever one winner.
“If we’re in the contest and it goes down to the wire we’ll win more than we lose.”
Johnson is clearly pleased to have someone of the experience, and technical and proven coaching ability of Dean Ryan alongside and stressed his desire to use this opportunity to further develop Scottish coaches, with the appointments of Stevie Scott as skills coach and Shade Munro to a one-game Scotland ‘A’ gig. Munro is a leading candidate to take over from Ryan with the senior team for the summer tour to South Africa once free of Glasgow commitments.
What Johnson does bring to the challenge is some knowledge of the Scotland players and their strengths and weaknesses, and, crucially, a realism around the task in hand. He accepts the relative lack of resource in Scottish rugby, but sees parallels to the Welsh team that built into Grand Slam champions.
He explained: “I have worked in countries where they are very fortunate in what they have at their disposal and some where they were less fortunate. This country is very similar to Wales in the early 2000s as they have the spine of a team that is athletically gifted, there’s no doubt about that.
“If we get that part right and we build a team around that and work on what is important to us and not chase rainbows then we will get more good results than bad. We have to understand that’s the kind of country we are.
“We can’t go to the bank and pull out player X, Y or Z as South Africa and England can. It is what it is, and instead of focusing on the negatives we should focus on the positives. We have the spine of a team, a small player pool who are all in close proximity to each other.
“Let’s duck and dive and see if we can overachieve. That’s our intention. We will be competitive enough.
“Wales went through a bit of pain and got plenty of gain. If you keep working and keep being honest then you will start to improve. While other people are chasing rainbows you’re getting on and doing what you need to do.”