Quick brain guides Wales' fast hands and feet

Johnson's individual coaching proves crucial to the Dragons' renaissance. Hugh Godwin reports
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The Independent Online

A breath of fresh air is wafting through Welsh rugby, and it has a name: Scott Johnson. Though the spotlight this week fell on Mike Ruddock, with the new national coach enjoying a 42-0 win against the Barbarians, Johnson has been for two years the backs coach with the most input into the rebirth of Wales's running play.

The fellow with the long straggly hair you see prowling the touchline during matches is no fool, you know. Johnson talks an extremely good game, and that statement should be read utterly without cynicism.

Wales set off on tour next Thursday for two Tests in Argentina, and one in South Africa. They have been assailed by injuries - full-back Gareth Thomas's twisted ankle against the Baa-baas was the latest - but they know that if their forwards can achieve parity with their hosts, the backs can do some serious damage.

Johnson, a 42-year-old from Sydney, has never been to Argentina. "I've got a weakness for dark women," he said. "So if I'm not on the plane coming back, you'll know why." All right, that might not have much to do with how Wales plan to deal with the behemoths masquerading as Pumas and Springboks, but with Johnson it is easy to get sidetracked.

Here is an avowed left-winger (in the political not rugby sense - he used to be a fly-half for New South Wales and Australia Under-21) who would like to scrap testimonials for well-paid players. He will not the sing the Welsh national anthem or any other one until a world anthem is played first for everyone to join in with. He doesn't want to sound religious about his sport - "I'm an atheist, anyway" - and treats his players "as people, not products".

He also happened to be Leicester's first choice when they were seeking a head coach in succession to Dean Richards. "They're really professional people," Johnson said. "When they won things, they didn't go and spend five million on players, they invested in facilities, and I think that's great. I will coach in the Premiership one day, and Leicester are the most impressive I've come across so far."

Leicester, for their part, were deeply impressed by the presentation Johnson gave, only to turn in-house to John Wells when their No 1 target pointed out that, if he was to stay in Europe rather than head home, it would be with Wales.

The call of Australia is a strong and very personal one and, although Johnson is hoping to stay where he is until the World Cup, the position may change sooner rather than later. His wife, Lesley, passed away from leukaemia in 1990; he lost his father, Godfrey, to cancer not long afterwards. Johnson's mother, Phillipa, looks after his 15-year-old son, Jarrah, but fell ill herself a couple of months ago. "My life's not an easy life," he said. "I've had a good run, mind, but it's a juggling act. I visited home after the Six Nations, and the easy decision would have been to stay there. I have somewhat of a different lifestyle to others, but I'm trying to do the best I can." Johnson's 17-year-old daughter, Kione, is living in Wales; he exchanges text messages with Jarrah daily.

Resisting the offer to become the second prominent "Johnno" at Leicester, the man who assisted Australia A to their win over the 2001 Lions is continuing the work he started with Wales on 1 February 2002. Within a week, Graham Henry had resigned, leaving Steve Hansen and Johnson - officially described as "skills coach" - in charge. There have been more downs than ups since then, but spirits are currently high. Insiders at Leicester formed the impression that Johnson was responsible for Wales throwing off the shackles at the World Cup, and giving New Zealand and England the frights of their lives.

Last Wednesday, in keeping the Barbarians scoreless for the first time since 1978, Wales showed they could defend, too. "It was a good hit-out and a good start for the tour," Johnson said. "But we've got to keep it in perspective. We used a rugby league-style defence designed by Clive Griffiths, and we want people to know they're playing against us. How long we stick with it depends on how it goes, but we're going to give it a go on the tour. It's important you keep the wheel turning. You don't want to stagnate. The top two or three inches is important in rugby, and lethargy is always a danger."

The redeployment to inside centre of Gavin Henson, as talented as he is unpredictable, is a case in point. This will be Henson's fourth successive summer away with Wales, but he has made little impression on the Test front in winter. "Gavin's got it all," said Johnson. "The challenge is getting it out of him. I love this team, they're a great bunch."

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