Tom English: Scott Johnson is now bullet-proof

Scott Johnson will take charge of Scotland until Vern Cotter arrives. Picture: SNS
Scott Johnson will take charge of Scotland until Vern Cotter arrives. Picture: SNS
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Whatever you think about Scott Johnson’s ability as a rugby coach, there is no doubting his masterful grasp of rugby politics, his unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time, a happy knack that saw him jump into Mike Ruddock’s boots in Wales when Ruddock fell victim to a player coup just as quickly as he jumped into Andy Robinson’s when player failure against Tonga did for the Englishman.

The Australian has been involved in Scottish rugby for little more than a wet week and yet he’s calling the shots along with Mark Dodson, the chief executive. Johnson was a member of Robinson’s coaching staff on the day they lost to Tonga in Pittodrie, one of the worst Scottish performances in recent times and yet it was a failure that seems to have done nothing but good for Johnson’s career.

Since it happened, he has been elevated to interim coach of the national team and on the back of two wins out of five in the Six Nations he has been elevated again to director of rugby. What, precisely, has Johnson done to merit all these promotions? Is he a great thinker or just a great talker?

What we do know is that he is now bullet-proof. While we wait for the Vern Cotter saga to play out, the position as it stands is that Johnson will take charge of the national team for the next year and it really doesn’t matter what he does with it because he’s heading upstairs regardless at the end of it all.

What a dream job, eh? What a marvellous nest he has made for himself. Johnson’s team could flop in the summer tour, flop in the autumn internationals and flop again in the Six Nations and all that will happen is that he will assume his role of director of rugby; the master of all he surveys. After spending five minutes in Scotland, the Australian has done pretty well for himself.

He has created a scenario whereby over the next year he may be the only international rugby coach in the world who will not be judged on his results. If Scotland lose every single game then there’s no comeback. Johnson steps up and Cotter steps in and the Teflon Aussie carries on like nothing bad ever happened

Of course, the dynamic may change once clarity is brought to the Cotter situation. In fact, you’d have to say that the dynamic probably will change. On the face of it, Cotter won’t be in his post at Murrayfield for another year but there are things going on around this story and each of them tell you that the Kiwi is going to be in Scotland a whole lot sooner than June 2014.

Yesterday brought confusion and rancour. Out of France came quotes from Rene Fontes, the current Clermont president. Fontes was angry at an interview that Cotter had given to a French newspaper in the wake of his team’s exit from the domestic championship last weekend at the semi-final stage. Cotter had bemoaned the poor performances of his on-field leaders in that game and name-checked Brock James. He was also critical of the club’s hierarchy for not spending more money to bring in marquee players. This was quite unlike Cotter. It has given rise to suspicion that he made the comments with an agenda in mind, that he wanted to engineer an early exit out of Clermont and an early arrival in Scotland and that the best way of doing it was to upset his employers.

It’s a theory, but only that. What is fact, though, is that Fontes didn’t like what Cotter had to say in that interview. Most importantly, he said that Cotter told him of his intention to resign. Here again there is ambiguity. Cotter denies having said anything about resigning. His line all along is that he wants to honour the remaining year left on his contract in France.

Whatever is true or not true about the motives behind Cotter’s criticisms of his senior players and the subsequent resignation claim from Fontes the mere fact that this friction now exists is instructive. And it points to a breakdown in trust and an earlier-than-expected exit from France. Fontes is painting a picture here of a coach who slags off his players, moans about a lack of bigger names in his squad and then says he wants to resign. If that’s the perception of Clermont – real or not – then you might say that Cotter’s position is untenable. Maybe Cotter is inching himself towards the door. And Maybe Fontes is helping him get there.

Cotter is a fascinating appointment, a Kiwi with a pedigree as a coach in the back-room at the Crusaders and, since 2006, with Clermont in France. There has been a love-bombing of Cotter since the news broke that he was coming to Scotland – and you can understand why. There should also be a proper analysis of his record at Clermont, though. Yes, he is a heavy-hitting coach and his appointment is an exciting one, but nobody should ignore the fact that he has won only a single trophy in his years at Clermont despite having a stellar team for much of his time there.

His Clermont have been rightfully branded the nearly men having come so close to winning so many trophies before failing at the death. That happened to them once again this season, both in the Heineken Cup final and in the semi-final of the French championship. Many will say that Cotter has been a great success in France, but others will say his team has flattered to deceive, that they’ve lacked moral fibre at critical times in games.

All of this needs to be weighed-up. Right now, if you polled Clermont fans, you will get a fair degree of negativity towards Cotter, certainly a lot more than you would have found just a few weeks ago not to mind a few months ago, which was when Dodson did the deal.

Back then, the feeling was that Clermont stood a hell of a chance of a French-European double, such was their form on all fronts. When Dodson persuaded Cotter to commit to Scotland, the chief executive might have felt that he was pulling off a coup, the genius of which would become clear to all when Clermont won the trophies they’d looked like winning. They didn’t. Cotter remains an intriguing prospect, but not a flawless one. Maybe that will prove to be a good thing. Cotter will be hungry for success in Scotland having not quite delivered enough of it in France.

It’s a question of when he appears. Sooner rather than later is the guess. And also who he will bring with him. There is a vacancy as a backs coach in the national set-up. Or, at least, there was. Johnson is going to fill that position and again we see how adept he is at creating roles for himself.

As director of rugby as well as backs coach, the Australian will be working above and below Cotter at the same time. He will be in a suit and a tracksuit, he will be in the committee room and the dressing-room. You look at Johnson’s brief record with Scotland and you can only conclude that he has made a little go a very long way.

In the meantime, we wait for the drama of Clermont to play itself out. Confusion reigns, Cotter rules, but when?