Rugby Australia’s new director of rugby Scott Johnson wants Australian rugby to be known for its “acumen and skill” around the globe and says butting heads with Michael Cheika will only be good for the game.
Just a day after flying in from Scotland – but three months after being appointed as Rugby Australia’s new director of rugby – Johnson fronted media in Sydney to set out his vision and plans for the game.
Beginning with a tour of the states, Johnson plans to balance the short-term agenda of a World Cup year with the long-term goals of unifying Australian rugby and strengthening pathways, from the grassroots through to the Wallabies.
Johnson, who was a Wallabies assistant coach in 2006/07, said he will leave the hands-on coaching of the Wallabies to Cheika and his staff.
But as a selector and effective boss of Cheika, the 56-year-old said he won’t be sitting on his hands, either.
Asked how he saw his relationship with Cheika working out, given the Wallabies coach’s strong personality, Johnson said: “I think I’ve got a strong personality too.
“We’re in a people business, you’ve got to know people, I’ve got a lot of good people here.
“I keep saying this, I’ve travelled all over the world and Australia is considered over-achievers when you consider the natural predators we’ve got and the sports available for athletes.
“It’s a competitive market, so we’ve got to get together. We’ve got a lot of good people here.
“Cheik’s got great drive, great passion to get a team going good, and I understand that.
“There are going to be times we all disagree, that’s fine. If you get two people who always agree, you’ve got one too many haven’t you?
“It’s got to be dynamic because we both want what’s best for the game and the best for the team. He’ll want the best for the Wallabies and we have a longer term view of it too, so it’ll be good.”
Johnson has spent the last seven years as director of rugby in Scotland, and said he was proud to have left the Scots with a hard-earned “credibility on the world stage”.
Having a perspective of the Wallabies from both inside and outside the tent, Johnson said he was keen for the Australian team – and Aussie rugby in general – to focus back on the traits it has traditionally been known for around the globe.
“What I’ll attempt to do… I grew up in a great era, I worked as a coach and a player through a great era of Australian rugby where we were known for our acumen and skill and I think they were two great credits to the people involved, coaches and the like,” said Johnson.
“Around the world that’s what we’re renowned for and having travelled the world and seeing how the world views us, that’s important.
“For me I want to hold onto that. We’re a bright rugby nation.
“We want to be a skilful one and I think on the rugby landscape that’s where I want us to be seen. As I keep saying to the people upstairs, we’re in show-business not tell-business, so I’m going showing people.”
Johnson is the first director of rugby ever appointed by Rugby Australia, so its new territory.
But Johnson knows the role well, and he believes there are definite similarities with his former post at the Scottish Rugby Union.
“There are similarities because it crosses over, Scotland was a different state to when I got it there,” he added.
“Australia’s a prominent rugby nation, has great traditions and has been very successful, there are a lot of similarities in the job; you’ve got to take people with you, you’re not always going to win friends, there’s going to be tough decisions to make.
“From my dealings with everyone here, everyone has got the same ambitions, the same drive.
“We’ll be working with good people here and we need to understand our goal.
“Our goal is to get prominence here in the marketplace in this country and that’s what we’ll be striving to do.”
Many have written off the Wallabies’ chances of winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup after a poor season in 2018, which ultimately prompted a review of RA’s high performance structures and, ultimately, Johnson’s recruitment.
But Johnson is still bullish about the Wallabies’ chances at the World Cup.
“We have as much chance as anyone else,” he said.
“We have a pretty formidable record but we can’t rely on that, and don’t expect to. We are trying to get prominence in a very dynamic sporting landscape and we want to stand for something. Our rugby DNA is acumen and skill and that’s what I want to be.
“The rugby fraternity and rugby public, and sporting public, will understand that.
“We are pretty proud of what is on our coat of arms – we have two animals that don’t walk backwards. I quite like that so with anything in a competitive sense, we won’t be walking backwards.”
Johnson helped Scotland beat Australia twice in 2017 – home and away – but asked to give an analysis of the Wallabies’ issues over the last few years, the western Sydney-raised coach demurred.
But he also indicated he didn’t buy into the doom-and-gloom narrative.
“The Wallabies are a funny one, they got to the last World Cup final,” Johnson said.
“Everyone talks about the problems in Australian rugby from afar, that’s what you hear, but there’s a lot of countries around the world that wish they had the same problems.
“I sat from the cheap seats where I was, I’m not one of those (people) to make comments without knowing the depths of the bowels in the business.
“Once I get in there, ask me in six or eight weeks I might be a bit clearer on that.
“I had a job trying to get a nation competitive, that was my full on focus, and that’s my new job here so it’ll be a fun ride ladies and gents.”
Johnson will be one of three members on the newly-created Wallabies selection panel, along with Cheika and former Wallaby Michael O’Connor.
O’Connor has already said he won’t be shy in coming forward with his opinions and Johnson echoed the sentiment, but also said he hoped “logic” would win out in all selection disputes.
“It will be dynamic I am sure. We all have an opinion, but like I said if you have two people who always agree you have one too many,” Johnson said.
“At the end of the day you want it vibrant and when the team gets picked you know you have done your due diligence and you know you have cross-examined each other. That’s not a bad thing.
“You’d like to think casting votes don’t come, that logic wins. Guys …are coaching the team so you want him to win his arguments because there is logic to it. It will be pretty dynamic and keep everyone honest.”
Johnson has returned to Australia for a full-time coaching gig for the first time since he and fellow Wallabies coaches departed at the end of the 2007 World Cup campaign.
He has spent the past 12 years coaching in Wales, the USA and Scotland, but Johnson said the chance to return home – and to make a further contribution to Australian rugby – was perfectly timed.
“If I talk from a personal view it was the right time for me, I’ve been overseas for a long time so that was the first one,” Johnson said.
“And without too dramatic rugby has been pretty good to me [I was a] boy out west, travelled the world and had an opportunity to come back and make a very valuable contribution back home and I felt like I was at the right age and right time to add to that. It’s been good to me.
“I never thought I’d get to see what I’ve done in the world and I think it’s time to give back a little bit. I’m at a perfect age to do that and I want to see Australia get better at all levels, that’s what I want to do.”