Scotland looking to Scott Johnson for a new way of thinking in Test arena

ANDY Robinson has upped the ante in his bid to find a way to overcome the challenge of making Scotland more consistent winners on the international stage by bringing in Australian Scott Johnson.

The former England and British and Irish Lions coach took the Scotland helm in the summer of 2009 after watching Frank Hadden’s promising early start as national coach fizzle out in a run of three wins in the three RBS Six Nations Championships from 2007-9.

However, while Robinson has moulded a more consistently competitive side and claimed historic victories over Argentina, Australia and South Africa, his first two and a half years have not improved on the one-win-per-championship run nor Scotland’s inability to score tries.

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And this year he was in charge of a Scotland side which dropped out of a World Cup prior to the knockout stages for the first time.

Robinson last year signed a contract extension to 2015 and insisted at the start of December that he backed his assistants Gregor Townsend and Graham Steadman to help him make Scotland a force over the next four years. But he has sought to strengthen the backroom team with Johnson appointed to a new “senior assistant” role.

Robinson said little about the new man yesterday, the SRU having been pushed into confirming Johnson’s appointment by the Ospreys announcement that he would leave them at the end of the season and rising speculation that he was heading to Murrayfield.

What Johnson will bring is not easily defined, as it is his innovative and often unorthodox approach that lies at the heart of his appeal. Sydney-born, he was a good enough stand-off and centre to reach Australian under-21 level, and a sufficiently good leader to captain the under-21s and New South Wales Waratahs, before moving into coaching with Penrith and picking up a Club Coach of the Year award in his mid-thirties.

That prompted a brief spell as assistant coach at the Waratahs in 2001 and an assistant role with the Australia A team against the British and Irish Lions, before the Lions coach Graham Henry took up the top job in Wales and asked Johnson to join him as a skills coach.

Johnson held that role under Henry, Steve Hansen and Mike Ruddock, helping Wales to their first Grand Slam in 27 years with the latter in 2005.

He became embroiled in the messy departure of Ruddock in 2006, having to refute claims that he acted with players to isolate the coach because he coveted the top job, but was given it as caretaker for the remainder of the 2006 Six Nations.

He already had his eye on a move back home and, after defeats to Ireland and France and a draw with Italy, he joined John Connolly’s Wallabies coaching team as backs coach in the lead-up to the 2007 World Cup. The 2003 World Cup finalists were knocked out by England in the quarter-finals and Johnson headed to North America in 2009 to sign a four-year contract as head coach of the USA Eagles, stating: “I’m going to immerse myself in the culture and coach to the strengths and weaknesses of the American athlete.

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“I’m in it for the long haul now, and it’s important to get this right. In a rugby sense, this is the last frontier and I’m really looking forward to getting the Eagles in a position to be a world force.”

But he left inside a year, with one win in six games, to take up a new director of coaching role at the Ospreys. He helped steer the club to the Magners League title and Heineken Cup quarter-finals in 2009-10, but lost in the league semi-finals and failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals last season.

He helped to dismantle the Ospreys “Galacticos” image by clearing out top players Mike Phillips (to Cardiff), Gavin Henson (time out), Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne), James Hook (Perpignan), Marty Holah and Jerry Collins (back to NZ), who were among the highest-paid in the UK, and Johnson had been striving to rebuild the squad with less finance and more local talent.

Ospreys Heineken Cup hopes have gone this season after a draw with Treviso and back-to-back defeats to Saracens, but their loss to the Scarlets on Monday was only their second in the RaboDirect Pro12 and they sit second behind Leinster.

The last time Scotland looked to Australia for inspiration it ended controversially with Matt Williams losing the head coach job after winning just three Tests in 17. However, Jim Telfer, the SRU Director of Rugby who, with Ian McGeechan, appointed Williams as the first non-Scots head coach, believes Johnson could be a good signing. He said: “I have never met Johnson but I think he will an asset to the union and I look at it as a positive step forward. The Australians are always very positive and on-the-ball, and he will bring an international flavour to the set-up which is helpful. You can’t compare him with Matt Williams and imagine they will be the same. Matt had many talents, but it didn’t work out for him, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t look at Australians again. Johnson knows the international players quite well and the Welsh players particularly well, and that will be helpful to us. But I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly start manufacturing tries from the squad. We are not scoring enough tries but that is not, in my view, the fault of Andy Robinson or Gregor Townsend, but the players. The players scoring for Wales, England or Ireland are doing that for their clubs and bring it into the international team. You take Tim Visser out of the equation and we don’t have many players scoring regularly at club level.

“There is a lack of depth in Scottish rugby and a weakness there compared to the top sides, which is shown up in Test rugby. But, if he can bring a fresh look at it, Johnson may be able to help the coaches make a difference.”

Like every coach before him, Robinson has been racking his brains to find an answer for how to turn Scotland from a highly-promising team into consistent winners.

He stated earlier this month that he felt support from an experienced international coach could be one possibility.

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He said then: “I would like to bring in an experienced coach because I feel it is something that could provide us with support as we try to take Scotland forward.

“All I’ve got to look at is how we win games and have a successful team. That is my focus, how, over the next couple of years, we can create a really successful international side.”

Though he knew who he wanted, he could not say, adding only: “It’s someone who has that coaching experience. Maybe a sage-like figure who can really add to what we’re doing. It’s all about knowledge and trying to help us, so that we’re not getting into situations that we are in at the moment.

“It’s about always looking for ways to improve and so looking at how we challenge me and the other coaches. You look at other coaching teams. Take Ireland for example, where Alan Gaffney has worked with the Irish squad and given them support. You take New Zealand and the three coaches that were there all with international coaching experience.

“I now think this is the best way for us to move forward as a coaching group.”

At 49, Johnson is just two years older than Robinson and, although a coach in the international game since 2001, he has worked as an assistant in the Test arena for just eight years, similar to Scotland’s 50-year-old defence coach Graham Steadman and a few years fewer than Robinson.

There are more experienced individuals out there, but one senses that Robinson wants to tap into Johnson’s reputation for thinking differently and encouraging flair in the hope that it could provide a new, powerful coaching cocktail to guide Scotland from next summer.


Johnson’s coaching career

2001: NSW Waratahs assistant and Australia A assistant coach for the British and Irish Lions tour.

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2001-06: Appointed Wales skills coach by Graham Henry. Worked under Steve Hansen and Mike Ruddock.

2006: Appointed Wales caretaker coach after Ruddock quit, taking charge for three Six Nations games.

2006/07: Left Wales to join John Connolly as Australia attack coach up to the Rugby World Cup.

2008/09: Having been sacked by Australia after a poor World Cup, appointed USA Eagles coach.

2009-12: Quit the Eagles to become Ospreys director of coaching.

2012: Will leave Ospreys at end of season to be Scotland senior assistant coach.