Johnson puts bounce back into Wallabies

Wales' former guru helps to get his homeland back up and running - and smiling once more
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is high time the Wallabies took a bounce in an upward direction. After eight defeats in the past nine Tests to the end of 2005, they mean to do so with a squad bearing a fresh look and a brand-new coaching team comprising three strident voices more familiar to British ears of late than Aussie ones.

The head honcho is John Connolly, recently of Bath, with another man not long gone from the Rec in Michael Foley to take the forwards and Scott Johnson, erstwhile darling of the Welsh, in charge of the backs. Speaking from the team's camp in Coffs Harbour, Johnson admitted there was some settling in still to do as the Wallabies contemplate a schedule of nine Tests in 13 weeks.

"I coached a great bunch with Wales and we got on," says Johnson. "There's a great deal you can do if you get on, and we're getting to know these players and they're getting to know us. A big part of my coaching is getting them together."

And how about getting the coaches on the same wavelength? Johnson agrees with the contention that Connolly's personality is reminiscent of the publicly taciturn Steve Hansen, the New Zealander he worked with in Wales. At the risk of being simplistic, is there a clash between Connolly's emphasis on forward grunt and Johnson's love affair with back-division dazzle?

"You know, the old guy's coming my way," says Johnson with a laugh. "I'll fight my corner and he'll have the same intention, and the beauty is we're trying to achieve the same thing and get a competitive side. We want to represent what Australians are, and the Australian mentality is to want to play."

Connolly has already broken with the practice of his predecessor, Eddie Jones, by taking the squad away from Coffs Harbour to Sydney this week to prepare for Sunday's First Test with England - the Second is in Melbourne six days later. The vice-captains Stirling Mortlock and Daniel Vickerman are back after missing the autumn tour.

English memories dwell squarely on Twickenham last November and a Wallaby pack buckling at the scrum. The Aussies are crying out for someone to front up in the front row, and Connolly has cast his net over props Guy Shepherdson, Rodney Blake and Benn Robinson: all under 25 and untried in Tests. There are nine international rookies in a squad of 34 which includes Matt Giteau despite the inside-centre being likely to need further rest to get over a knee operation.

A fair amount of attention has centred on the fast-improving Blake of the Queensland Reds - aka "Rodzilla" - who has shed 20kg in becoming a still far- from-slimline 130kg. "He's a great player who's learning his art," says Johnson. "In a couple of years' time the world might be taking notice of Rodney, because he's different and brings something to the game.

"I've come back and been surprised how big our forwards are; they are as big as anyone's. So it must be a technical thing, and that's Michael Foley's speciality. I always say it takes 500 hours to learn a new skill, so divide that by the number of training sessions we've got and work out how long it might take. But we're progressing all the time. We acknowledge the team lost last year but they had horrendous injuries and they competed in every Test they played."

Only six of England's touring squad are uncapped, so arguably they have an advantage, although Australia have the redoubtable George Smith and Phil Waugh in the back row.

"Come World Cup time we want to make sure we've got the right miles on the clock," says Johnson. "We've got nine tough Tests with England twice, Ireland, and then the expanded Tri-Nations. There's a lot of travel in there too." It suggests a sharing around of duties, so not even George Gregan, the 33-year-old scrum-half and captain, can be sure of every start.

Even so, Johnson is a fan. "George is getting near to the inevitable but he's still fighting for his place and he certainly warrants it on his form." Gregan's version, as he eyes the two Tests he needs to pass Jason Leonard's world record of 119, is cautious: "There are a lot of players who are going to be exposed to this level for the first time."

The Johnson we got to know with Wales as their skills coach and latterly caretaker boss was a man who valued sport over nat-ional boundaries. The only anthem he fancied singing pre-match was a global one. Still, he is glad to be back. "My son Jarrah's now settled, which I'm really happy about. He's 17, he loves his dad being home and his dad loves being around his son."

Johnson's wife passed away 15 years ago but he has brought an English girlfriend, Judy, to the family home on the Central Coast north of Sydney, so easing the burden on his mother. "I miss the UK and my intention is to get back there at some stage," says Johnson. But with ever-present good humour, he roars: "I'm thinking of getting a T-shirt printed: 'Go home you Poms'!"