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Simply winning good for Scotland – and Johnson

As entertaining off the pitch as his teams have been on it, Scott Johnson's popularity is rising in Scottish rugby circles and he may be beginning to change his image.

Scott Johnson has always been a favourite of the players but now he is growing in popularity with the wider rugby public. Picture: SNS
Scott Johnson has always been a favourite of the players but now he is growing in popularity with the wider rugby public. Picture: SNS

Not that Scotland's caretaker coach bothers what anyone thinks of him. We know that because he was at pains to tell us so, more than once, at his first public appearance in the job.

However, he is a smart individual so surely knows there is a shadow over his reputation largely, but not solely, because of his involvement in Welsh rugby's brief, but dramatic, Ruddock revolution eight years ago.

Mike Ruddock inherited Johnson as part of his backroom team on taking over as Welsh coach in 2005 and in his first season they claimed a wholly unexpected grand slam success playing stylish rugby.

Less than a year later Ruddock departed his post as a result of player power amid much speculation about the role in his removal of Johnson, who remained a popular figure within the squad.

The phraseology used by Greig Laidlaw yesterday was, then, strangely evocative of accusations repeatedly directed at Johnson by many in Wales since he left. "The good thing you know about him is you know exactly where you stand," the straight-talking little Borderer said of the coach.

"He always says that if there's a knife coming you'll see it coming. He doesn't stab you in the back. I like that. The players appreciate that."

A maligned figure, then, or one who has learned from previous errors?

The views expressed by Geoff Cross, whose recall to the side is the only change – enforced by Euan Murray's refusal to play on Sundays – to the team that beat Italy, could be interpreted as suggesting the latter.

"The reason I enjoy working with Scott Johnson is that while he is a 50-year-old man who says he's made many mistakes in life and he's never played to the standard that the international guys he's working with today have, the things he asks you to do are almost embarrassingly simple, but he asks you to do them extraordinarily well," said the prop. "I've heard that from other coaches as a recipe for success. The best players do the simple skills extraordinarily well, no matter whether they're tired, they don't have enough time, there's a bit of pain, under whatever pressure.

"It's the simplicity. That's what I've noticed. He can be a bit of a philosopher, but that's fine. I like that."

In terms of Johnson's personal history, when it was announced last year that Andy Robinson was bringing him into the camp, Scotland's then head coach said he had spoken to the Australian about that episode with Wales as well as his subsequent controversial involvement with the American national team and was satisfied with what he heard.

The nudging and winking that went on across Scotland and Wales when Robinson then departed at the end of his second short campaign with his new staff member on board would, then, seem irrelevant, because it is increasingly clear that, regardless of what they have read or heard, Scotland's players enjoy working under Johnson, while they have come to recognise that what they were doing previously was not working. "We've talked a lot as a squad about needing to change," Laidlaw observed. "We realised we've not had the results so let's change because if we keep doing what we're doing we'll keep coming up with the same results. We've changed a few things again this week in training and we're hoping that will bring the back-to- back results that we desperately want.

"I'm just a player so I just get on with my job [but] the key message for me is that we needed to change and I think the players have realised that now. It's a lot of little changes Scott's made. . . no secret. A lot of the time it's about the dirty work at the breakdown and the tackle contest.

"Matt Taylor's come in and we've got good defensive systems. The Italian win was built on good defence. We never had loads of ball, but when they had it we squeezed them, so I think a lot of little things go a long way."

Therein lies an important point because, even in compiling the national side's Six Nations record win against Italy, the Scots were by no means as proficient in key areas as they must become to challenge the best, a point Johnson made immediately after the match and again this week.

There may be a small element of good fortune, too, since at no stage in living memory has a Scotland side had the sort of capacity it has suddenly developed to shred defences.

Only a year ago Stuart Hogg's introduction as a teenager was inspiring rhapsodies. Now the full-back is being teased by his wing men that he is the slowest member of the back three following Tim Visser's long-awaited qualification on residency and Sean Maitland's arrival in the ancestral home.

Like Johnson, those two have also brought a refreshing outlook, with Visser switching from directing those gentle digs towards the elusive Hogg's relative lack of pace, to praise for the latest newcomer.

"He is a very positive guy," the Dutch-born winger said of New Zealand-born Maitland. "That is something I would like to pride myself on as well. Scottish people like to be underdogs and like to come from that angle. In Holland it is very much different. We can be perceived as arrogant but we are just very positive and like to think we can do stuff. That is something I have seen in Sean as well. He is very positive and far, far away from arrogant but he knows what he can do and what he can bring to the party. He believes in himself and the rest of the team and that is something we can all definitely learn from.

"Sean is more of an all-round player than me. He is pretty solid in defence, he is a good attacker. We all have a lot of things to work on and he is the same as anybody else, but he is very balanced as a player and that is something he has picked up from back home."

Yet, for all the assurance Visser exudes, he shares his head coach's view that no-one can delude themselves about where Scotland are right now. "We need to get the fundamentals right and that is maybe slightly disguised by the tries we have scored. Some of them have been ridiculous and the one Hoggy scored was out of this world.

"Maybe these tries disguise the things we need to get right to beat better teams. If we do that on Sunday, we have a good chance of winning the Test match."

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