Johnson puts bounce back into Wallabies

Wales' former guru helps to get his homeland back up and running - and smiling once more

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'!"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world