Scott-land: A look at the past, present and future of Aussie rugby's new recruit

International
by Iain Payten

Those who played under Scott Johnson don’t doubt he can make an impact in Australian rugby. And quickly.

“Very good, very charming, very pragmatic,” was the summary of Wallaby he coached. “Good signing.”

The question for other veteran Johnson-watchers is a little more left-field: what will he say, and wear, to his first press conference?

Johnson, who was an Australian under 21s fly-half and has a globetrotting 20-year coaching career, also has a track record of rolled-gold pot-stirring - particularly when it comes to New Zealand.

Ahead of a Bledisloe Cup game in 2006, when Johnson was an assistant coach with the Wallabies, the All Blacks had moaned about him sitting close to the sideline in the previous Test. They were concerned he was de-coding their lineout, and they were probably right. 

Johnson had done the same thing to the British and Irish Lions in 2001 when the then Australia A coach wandered the sidelines of a midweek game in Coffs Harbour, listening intently. Justin Harrison later won the series for Australia with a stolen lineout.

When Johnson arrived at a Wallabies press conference in 2006, he unzipped his tracksuit to reveal a camouflage outfit. On the front was written “Can I sit here?” and on the back “Paranoia is curable”.

New Zealand had been a target a few years earlier for Johnson, too, when he was an assistant coach with Wales two years earlier. 

The Western Sydney-raised stirrer had previously called New Zealand a “poxy little island in the South Pacific” and made it known he would like to apologise. 

"I wasn't misquoted. I just got it slightly wrong,” he said.

"I actually said in the quote 'it's a poxy little island in the Pacific.' I do apologise to all New Zealanders when in fact, it's two islands."

BATTLER BACKGROUND

Johnson grew up in western Sydney and went to Arthur Phillip High School, where excelled at rugby and rugby league.

He was offered a league contract as a 17-year-old but at the same time Johnson was invited on a Parramatta rugby club tour of Europe. 

Johnson later said the choice was easy for a kid from a background of little money and no prospect of overseas travel. He chose rugby.

Johnson was a talented fly-half on the Sydney club scene, played for NSW and captained the Australian under 21s.

He stopped playing when his late wife Lesley fell sick, but came back to the game in 1998 when Peter “Fab” Fenton approached him to coach Penrith. 

Johnson turned the perennial strugglers into contenders and in 1999 they made the Shute Shield finals, earning him the coach of the year award.

Johnson became an assistant coach at the Waratahs, and coached Australia A to a midweek victory over the British and Irish Lions in 2001.

He was approached to coach in New Zealand, at both Canterbury and for the All Blacks, but instead took up an offer in 2002 to work with Graham Henry, and then Steve Hansen, in Wales.

Wales won a Grand Slam in 2005 and Johnson was head coach briefly in 2006 before returning to the Wallabies, where he became attack coach under John Connolly.

WALLABIES EXPERIENCE

Wallabies players of the 2006-07 campaigns speak highly of Johnson.

Coming out of the Eddie Jones era, Australia were ultra-programmed and Johnson’s attitude and hands-on coaching style helped change it.

“He was incredibly intelligent in first three-phase structured attack but basically, he debugged us of Eddie,” one Wallaby said.

"Scotty was play what’s in front of you, to play shape. He was always hands-on. Always happy to sit with you and challenge what you do.”

Careers turn on the bounce of a ball, or the whistle of a referee, and Johnson’s was no different.

There was a feeling in the 2007 Wallabies that had they beaten England in the quarter-final, they’d have beaten France and made the World Cup final.

Johnson was seen by players as the man who’d take over from Connolly.

Instead the Wallabies lost to England, mass changes occurred and Johnson moved on to a short-lived role as head coach of the USA.

EUROPEAN RETURN

Johnson returned to Wales in 2009 as Director of Rugby at the Ospreys, where he stayed until joining Scotland as an assistant coach in 2012.

When Andy Robinson quit at the end of 2012, Johnson was made head coach of Scotland and he held that role for two years - along with being made the SRU’s Director of Rugby in 2013.

Johnson’s head coaching record at Test level was modest - he won only five of 16 Tests - but he helped kick off the re-build of Scotland by recruiting respected Kiwi Vern Cotter to take over in 2014.

Steady growth saw Scotland make the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in 2015, where they were unluckily beaten by the Wallabies, and with the benefits of an aligned system beginning to work, Scotland began to be competitive in the Six Nations, too.

Not unlike David Nucifora in Ireland, Johnson's role in Scotland includes oversight of all player contracting, pathway systems and provincial operations. The goal of turning Glasgow and Edinburgh into strong teams, often by recruiting project players like Ireland, slowly began to work. 

When Cotter left in 2017, he had Scotland’s most successful win-rate of the professional era and handed over a strong team to Gregor Townsend, who beat the Wallabies in Sydney just months later, almost beat New Zealand and then thrash Australia in November.

This year they downed England in the Six Nations and spent most of 2018 ranked fifth in the world.

AUSSIE RETURN

Setting aside the many attempts by John O’Neill to push through a centralised governance model, the desire to build a nationally aligned Australian rugby system - under a director of rugby - has been in train for several years.

With Cheika having always been a coach who liked total control of his teams and programs, the rough plans looked for a Johnson or David Nucifora to come on board after what was hoped to be a successful 2019 World Cup.

But the poor results of 2018 hurried the plans up, and though Cheika wasn’t removed, Johnson’s return will see the Wallabies coach answering to a boss on rugby operations for the first time in a long time.

How will they get on? Some say they're alike, others say they're "ying and yang"

Both are strong personalities but that will be a positive, according to Drew Mitchell, who played at World Cups under both men.

"In some ways they’re very similar - they’re both very passionate,” Mitchell said.

"But they’ll challenge one another, as well. Scotty will come back from Scotland and they’ll get on the same page, and have conversations about what they want to achieve and then be united. It’ll be good for Australian rugby. 

"The detail is something he is strong at, and having helped build an environment where there is a centralised structure (in Scotland), where the provinces work into the national team, he will be able to implement that in Australian rugby.”

Aussies playing offshore can tend to have their tyres overly pumped up these days but one leading rugby official said Johnson’s experience can’t be discounted.

"He is definitely an innovator and he thinks pretty deeply about the game,” the official said.

"Structurally he has had enough time in the game and been in enough programs to know what works and what doesn’t work.

"That level of international experience - Wales, USA, Scotland, Australia - and look at the coaches he’s worked with, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, Vern Cotter, this is a level of experience we don’t currently have outside of Cheik."

JOHNSON IMPACT

With a Six Nations campaign still to see out, Johnson's physical return will come a few months before the Rugby Championship, and then the World Cup.

But sources say Johnson is already well across the Wallabies program, and the strengths and weaknesses that need immediate attention. Raelene Castle admitted he would begin to be involved immediately via the phone.

While it is not expected that Johnson will do any on-field coaching, he will make tangible impacts in the short-term by reviewing with Cheika - and likely changing - the make-up of the Wallabies coaching staff.

Longer-term, his role as a selector will also be influential and with a three-man panel, Cheika even has the potential to be voted down on selections.

But a general view is that the on-field impacts will also also come via Johnson taking from Cheika's shoulders a number of time-consuming organisational demands that have little to do with the nuts and bolts of coaching.

"Cheik can now just worry about coaching," Mitchell said.

"He is a guy who carries a lot of the burden of trying to rectify things or make change in the make-up of Australian rugby.  This set-up will allow Scott Johnson to just take care of that, and let him focus on getting the Wallabies to win on Saturday."