Scott Johnson reckons his men pulled off rugby's version of "rope-a-dope" and, while he believes his men are now title contenders, he admitted they were fortunate not to be knocked out in double quick time at Murrayfield yesterday.

"At half-time I was thinking that it was like Ali versus Foreman, lulling them into some false sense of security, my neck was sore looking down one side of the pitch," he laughed. It was typical of the effervescent caretaker head coach to compare his men's efforts with one of the great sporting accomplishments of the last century when Muhammad Ali soaked up round after round of punishment before turning the tables on George Foreman.

This win did not match the global significance of the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle", of course, but it owed much to courage, character and their patient capacity to wait for the moment to seize an opportunity.

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With every relevant statistic other than that on the scoreboard favouring the visitors, Johnson readily acknowledged that his men still need to make significant improvements to compete with the best.

"They'll be hurting, we'll enjoy the next 24 hours, but if we want to be a good quality side we've got to acknowledge that we have to work on some things – there wasn't much to like as a rugby coach, but a lot to like as a person. Let's put our qualities together with the character we showed. It wasn't perfect from us."

Far from it, but as he also observed they were rewarded for their resilience when their opponents were dominant. "We took our opportunities and they didn't take theirs, that was the sole difference. I've been on the other side of games like that," he noted. "England were a quality side that punished us; Ireland didn't punish us. We had a massive penalty count against us and massive territory against us, but we fought and while we missed some one-on-one tackles the recovery of those was fantastic."

Johnson and his backroom team had been delighted with how the scoreboard looked when they trailed just 3-0 at the interval. "We'd have taken that," he said. "Ireland scored after half-time and I thought, 'here we go, this is a test' and we fought back, it says a lot about this group.

"When we get things right we can hurt sides. We've lost a lot of possession and territory in the first three games, but that brought out the blue-collar boy in me. We had a wry smile, but there was great heart with it."

He also paid tribute to Jim Hamilton, who had been lucky to keep his place in the side ahead of the Italy match but was named man-of-the-match yesterday. "I've noticed that Jim's not everyone's cup of tea, so it's probably lucky the coaches are coffee drinkers," said Johnson. "He's awkward, but awkwardly effective."

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