"If you want to be good at something you've got to make it more important"

That one phrase resonated more than most as Scott Johnson sought to explain why he believes that Scotland's players are not as bad as their run of just three wins – and those against mediocre opposition – in their last 14 matches suggests.

Perhaps inadvertently, he hit upon something that has been a problem within Scottish rugby for a decade and more. In these columns I have, in the past, described my irritation at the attitudes expressed by Scotland players at the 2003 World Cup and their response to observations made by David Campese ahead of the tournament.

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Having made his international debut in 1982, Campo had been part of an Australia side that completed the Wallabies' first successful grand slam tour of the British Isles in 1984. He was a key figure when they won the 1991 World Cup and enjoyed a magnificent 14-year Test career.

A true great, he sacrificed more than most to achieve those feats and his soundbites often spared anyone. His status was such, though, that, seven years after his career ended, he was considered sufficiently relevant to be asked to assess the 2003 contenders for an Australian newspaper. After duly offering his views on the other seeded sides, he summed up the Scots in withering fashion.

"They seem to enjoy themselves more off the pitch than on it," he observed.

Naturally, the media seized upon the apparent slur and put it to a string of senior Scotland players. None, apparently, were aware of Campo's comments yet the response was mantra-like, as if it had been prepared for them or agreed upon in committee. "If that's what he needs to say to make him happy then that's his problem," said one after another.

It was an attitude that left some of us wondering seriously about the competitive mentality of Scottish players compared with their rivals at the elite end of the game.

A Scottish sporting great having coined the phrase that football was "not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that", it seemed that the new breed of rugby players were embracing that philosophy all over the world, but not in Bill Shankly's native land.

The following weeks were to be little better than an embarrassment for the 2003 squad as their antics became a near-nightly feature on a comedy programme devoted to the World Cup. By contrast, as Campo predicted, they offered considerably less on-field entertainment, scraping through their pool thanks to a last-gasp try by one of their few true professionals Tom Smith before being dumped unceremoniously by the hosts in the quarter-finals.

By 1999, the year of the national team's last major success, when Gary Armstrong led them to a Five Nations Championship win, attitudes seemed to be changing. The last of the grand-slam generation – those who brought glory to Scottish rugby in 1984 and 1990 – were drifting out of the game.

Back then there was increasing talk among those paid to represent Scotland at rugby about the "lifestyle" opportunities provided by their new profession.

Some of those who were most concerned with broadening their horizons remain prominent within the sport and you have to wonder just how much of an influence they have had on those they played alongside and who looked up to them. That is not to write off an entire generation, for all that, in the ensuing decade, Scotland have only once won more than one match in a Six Nations campaign.