Meet Scott, an Australian helping Wales - just don't mention Kiwis

Click to follow

Before the ill-fated Lions tour, which Johnson experienced as a ringside observer, he des-cribed New Zealand as a "poxy island in the Pacific". Asked to explain such a statement by the inhabitants of a country that can be quite sensitive about national identity, Johnson had a rethink. "I'm sorry, I was wrong. It's two poxy islands in the Pacific."

Scott of the anarchic is an Australian. "When you're cornered you've got to attack," he said. "Every time I went through an airport in New Zealand the subject was brought up. That's the way it is. You've got to compete."

Johnson, who looks like something out of the cast of Hair, has had a profound influence on rugby in Wales, albeit via a connection with New Zealand. The former stand-off from Sydney helped to coach Australia A to victory over the Lions in 2001. At the time Graham Henry was in charge of Wales and the Lions, and was so impressed by Johnson - "he is innovative and full of ideas" - that he brought him to the Principality as skills coach. No sooner had Johnson arrived in Cardiff than Henry departed for his native New Zealand.

In 2003 Wales, coached by another New Zealander, Steve Hansen, with Johnson as his right-hand man, suffered a whitewash in the Six Nations but then illuminated the World Cup in Australia by their performances against the All Blacks and England. "Their play was not only very attractive but highly effective," Mike Ruddock, who succeeded Hansen, said. "Scott has been instrumental in the way Wales play."

The highly fluid style brought them a Grand Slam last season after they had run the All Blacks to within a point in a 60-point classic at the Millennium Stadium 12 months ago. They meet again on Saturday in a match requested by the WRU to celebrate 125 years of competition.

"Getting the players together is a logistical nightmare," Johnson said, "but we asked for this game, so we've got to put up with it. Both sides have improved since last year and all things being equal, which they aren't, it should be very close again. New Zealand have become the most potent side in the world, but whereas the Lions struggled to establish their own style, Wales are comfortable in what they're trying to achieve.

"They have their own identity... a sense of what is their own. They don't try to play like the All Blacks, or anybody else. They've made radical changes and have been proactive, which is good for the sport.

"We know we're going to have to score a lot of points to win and we know there will be tries. That is our mindset. This is not going to be 9-9. I enjoy competing against the All Blacks because they try to win the game rather than just stop the opposition. Hats off to them."

With New Zealand at the top of the world rankings, the Lions mauled and the Tri-Nations in the bag, Henry and Hansen would like nothing better than to see in the new year with a Grand Slam of the four home countries. They will take some stopping. "They are a most formidable squad," Johnson, who after the Lions tour went skiing on the poxy South Island with Hansen, acknowledged, "but we're not going to wave the white flag. Our philosophy is that you don't necessarily have to run over people to get the best results. Over the last 18 months we've become more subtle, especially with the ball in hand. We adapt to what suits our skill levels. And I'm a bloody good plagiarist. If we compete we can win. It's up to us to come up with a few things."

Like how to stop Joe Rokocoko, whose late try last autumn denied Wales a famous victory. "Money can't buy what he's got," Johnson said. "Nothing could be worse than to have Joe feeling he can join the game whenever he wants."

When it comes to priceless commodities, Johnson believes that Gavin Henson, the wounded Osprey who has been filling in his leisure time by trying to concoct a best-seller, is up there. "We've got to do what's in the best interests of the kid. There's plenty more to come from Gavin. When he's fit he'll be ready to go to another level."

Johnson's exploits with Wales prompted Australia to offer him a post working alongside the Wallabies coach, Eddie Jones. "I haven't finished what I started here," he said. "I like the boys, I like the country. You never know how much more you can get out of them. My job is to emphasise what we can do, not what we can't. For the first time, the regions have been giving youngsters a chance, and that's very encouraging for the future. We'll see the benefits in a couple of years."

Wales, who are losing their chief executive, David Moffett, who is returning to New Zealand, would not like to lose Johnson, certainly not before the next World Cup in 2007. "It's a year-by-year agreement," he said. "Nothing's official because I never sign contracts. I came here on a handshake. I'm better working on the edge. If I walked out tomorrow I'd have made a lot of friends. My dad taught me that if you don't want to dance, be in a position where you can say no."

His dad, Geoffrey, also taught Scott to play rugby. "I'm a working-class boy, and what I like about Wales is that rugby is a working-class game. I come from a country where it isn't. I feel comfortable here... nice and comfortable." Johnson has bought a seven-bedroom guest house in Porthcawl, on the South Wales coast, which is slightly different from New South Wales.

On the touchline Johnson, a 43-year-old non-conformist who is not averse to playing mind games with the opposition, can be as passionate as the next man, but he won't sing the Welsh national anthem. "I don't have boundaries. The only anthem I'd sing is a world anthem. It should be one place but it isn't. Thank goodness we've got sport."

RED OR BLACK? A fierce rivalry that has stood the Tests of time

OPENING SALVOS: They still talk about the first Test between the two, dubbing it the "Match of the Century". It took place in 1905 at the Arms Park, Wales won 3-0 but the All Blacks had a try controversially disallowed. No video referee in those days...

REFEREE BLUNDER: In 1935 Wales triumphed 13-12, though they owed their victory to a spot of good fortune. A try by Geoffrey Rees-Jones was awarded following an illegal Claude Davey tackle in the build-up.

WHAT GOES ROUND... In the final minute of the 1978 Test, the All Blacks were 12-10 down. Then Andy Haden (left) conned the referee by diving from the line-out and a penalty for obstruction was wrongly awarded. Brian McKechnie kicked it for a 13-12 win.

THE NEW DAWN: Written off before their 2003 World Cup quarter-final, Wales came from behind, throwing caution to the wind to lead 37-33 early in the second half. The All Blacks rallied to a 53-37 win, but Wales won the plaudits for their attacking approach.

THE LAST DEFEAT: The scoreline shows that a weakened New Zealand won their 2004 autumn showdown in Cardiff 26-25. They were lucky. It was a scintillating match and provided the springboard for Wales to go on to an unbeaten streak of eight games.

Gary Lemke

Comments