Australian rugby should not pursue a centralised model, says Scott Johnson

by Iain Payten

Rugby Australia’s newly installed director of rugby Scott Johnson doesn’t believe a centralised model would suit Australian rugby but will instead pursue a “four-stick” system of state alignment to maximise national power.

In an interview on FoxSports on Saturday, Johnson held court on a number of topics; including a belief that the 2019 Rugby World Cup could see the first winner to lose a pool game, that changes in the Wallabies’ game could be effective amid global "copy cats” and that he’s spoken to Aussie Polynesian players to address potential disharmony about the Israel Folau matter.

Johnson has been travelling around Australia since returning from Scotland last month and taking up his new role as director of rugby.

As a national selector he met with Wallabies coach and new selector Michael O’Connor this week to discuss a squad that goes into a camp next week.

Johnson has been tasked with establishing the best possible national system for Australian rugby but despite many having advocated for years for a centralised model like New Zealand or Ireland, Johnson  revealed to FoxSports that he doesn’t believe that’s the best model for Australia.

"The big part of me coming back, we talk about centralised programs and models and then we talk about alignment. I don’t think we can as a country be centralised,” Johnson said.

"We like the point of differences that the provincial teams bring. I do believe we should have an aligned system. One stick doesn’t make that much damage but if you put them all together it’s a pretty good weapon.

"I think we have four really good provincial teams, and if we start working and working together, we can be pretty strong and formidable.”

Johnson conceded a good example of a strongly aligned national system would be calling on Brumbies coach Dan McKellar to consult with the Wallabies on building the same powerful rolling maul they have at the ACT franchise.

"The four-stick concept is important and we’re going to tap into it,” Johnson said.

"I quite like the differences in rugby, I like to bring the skill of that. Because a maul is important in rugby, especially against the northern hemisphere sides. Dan is a really good coach of that. We would be silly to not discuss that with him.”

WORLD CUP

Though the World Cup is only five months away and Johnson couldn’t shed light yet on who would be replacing Stephen Larkham as backs coach, he is still quietly confident the Wallabies can be a shot in what he believes will be the most even World Cup yet.

"I can see this being the first World Cup where the winner loses a game,” Johnson said.

"The world is getting closer, you look at the pools. There is no real easy game anymore. When the World Cup started in 87 you could pick the semi-finalists. Those days are gone.

"To win it now, injuries will play a part, no doubt about it. As at the last World Cup, a bit of luck plays its part. I was on the losing side of that luck last time.”

Australia will bid for the 2027 men's Rugby World Cup. Photo: Getty Images"The beauty of it is I think the game has got a little copy cat. Sides are playing very, very similar around the world these days, so for the Wallabies to be competitive if we try something different and play a little bit different, we have got the players who can do that. 

"And Michael is trying to do something a little different, which is good. The team that can control the ball on their terms will win the tournament.

"We do things slightly different, we do it our way. We are not a copy cat country. It’s a creative way we play."

Johnson said the national selectors will look to pick teams to accord with Cheika’s plans and philosophies, and will spend time in the camp next week to get a better feel.

"Part of the selecting process is understanding what Cheik’s trying to do with the team,” he said.

“That’s very important.”

FOLAU IMPACT

Johnson bemoaned the oxygen being sucked out of the game by the ongoing Israel Folau saga; exemplified last week when the victories of the Junior Wallabies and the Brumbies were barely covered in the media.

Asked if he was aware of any potential division arising between Rugby Australia and religious Polynesian players supportive of Folau, Johnson said he’d already chatted with several players to listen to their views.

"I have spoken to a few of them, to first and foremost make sure they’re ok. As I keep saying we are in a people’s business, and you have to get to know people. It’s important,” Johnson said.

"We are an inclusive game and they are a big part of our culture and our rugby culture. We don’t want to make it divisive. 

“It's about spending time and understanding the issue, but what I have come across so far I think is respectful both ways and they’re paid to play rugby, and I think they understand that.”

AUSTRALIAN FUTURE

As he has said previously, Johnson said he wants Australian rugby to be known as the “cleverest” around the world but he also indicated he will demand an increase in fitness levels.

"We need to teach the kids in the academies that we want the acumen, we want the responsibility, we want the self-reliance kid, to do in the game we want to play we need legs, we need miles in the legs, to run quickly for longer,” Johnson said.

"Skills, acumen and speed-endurance. That's what I want. That’s where I want to finish.

"When you look at the TV, I’d like you say Australia plays that way. You may not like it, England do it slightly differently, but that’s in our DNA. 

"I want to be the first to do things. Sometimes you don’t get it 100 per cent right but the game has become a little bit static across the board.

"There are better ways. We have to be creative."