The Australian guiding Wales through crisis: Players' friend, court jester or arch schemer?

Becoming the Welsh caretaker coach has thrust Scott Johnson into the limelight. But apart from widespread admiration for his coaching qualities, the new man remains an enigmatic figure
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If it does follow that a team should be cast in the image of its coach then, purely on a sartorial judgement, Welsh rugby really does have the perfect man at the moment. Because, quite frankly, Scott Johnson is a mess.

As he slumps down in the chair next to you, in a tracksuit that never had a chance of being anything other than ill-fitting, what with the still athletically defined legs it must try to accommodate on top of the even more defined beer belly, the 43-year-old ties up one of the frayed laces on his crumpled trainers and then attempts to run his hands all the way through his mass of hair.

Those flocking golden locks have led to inevitable comparisons with a certain French actor, although closer inspection will confirm that the general condition of the tresses is less Depardieu and more Deputy Dawg. "Look, nothing's ever going to change me," the caretaker coach tells you, spotting the shifting gaze. "And it doesn't matter whether you're the Queen or the plumber, I won't treat you any differently. You are what you are. I am what I am."

All very straightforward. Although is it? For Wales has began wondering these past extraordinary 10 days just who Scott Johnson actually is. Is he the lovable joker they always thought he was, waddling on to the pitch with the water to gee up the players, before quickly waddling back to the touchline again to do the same with the fans, but this time with huge sweeps of the arms to spark up chants of dominance and hymns of providence? Or have the ever-more persuasive overload of "player power" rumours - that have allegedly precipitated the grand slamming of the door on Mr Grand Slam, Mike Ruddock - hinted at something more Machiavellian about "Jonno", the players' favourite; the court jester who would have always have been King, as it were?

There is no doubt that there is a lot more to Johnson than meets the eye. Just as the genius is often hidden in the clown - and to seemingly everyone who has ever worked with him, Johnson is indeed a coaching "genius" - so must there always be tragedy. Sixteen years ago, the then-centre was forced to give up playing in Sydney and left his job at the engineering company he ran with his father to bring up his two children. Lesley, his wife, had died of leukaemia leaving a one-year-old son, Jarrah, and a five-year-old daughter, Kione. "The shock was that she was such a physically fit woman," says Johnson, an intensely private man who rarely talks about it.

"The hardest part was that we made a pact we wouldn't tell anyone. Myself, her and the two kids battled it out, really. That was probably the hardest thing I have had to do. But I am glad I discovered I was strong enough to live through things like that. I grew in a positive way and found out things about myself I would never have otherwise. I lived as a woman, not in a skirt or anything, but in the traditional sense. I would take the kids to school, clean the house and cook them stuff. I went through a period of life where my best friends were women. It allowed me to see the other perspective and to understand that there is always one. These benefits come out of a tragedy. You cannot teach humility, you have to learn it."

That was not all Johnson learnt. A typical alpha male before this seismic life-changer, Johnson moved into the unashamedly macho world of Aussie coaching with a distinctive, if not revolutionary, style. "Sometimes you have dark moments, but it's how you get out of them that counts," he says. "That's what makes me a coach. Coaching to me is no different to parenting. I look at the players as if they're my kids - I've got to be honest with them, but at the same time I want to encourage them to challenge me. Listen, if I can't look at the people I'm coaching as my kids, and instead just as 'products', then I don't want the job."

Johnson plainly looks upon this Welsh squad as his children, just as they see something of the father in him that they never quite could in Ruddock. Whatever else is arguable in Welsh rugby at this present time - and pretty much everything else is up for grabs - that much at least isn't. The players' faith in "Jonno" is unwaverable, as born out by their now infamous meeting with Steve Lewis when they entreated the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive to do whatever it took to dissuade the skills guru from returning Down Under to join the Wallabies. Many in the Principality are now speculating that Lewis did just that, although, in truth, the whole scenario is much more complicated than the conspiracists would ever have it.

"This isn't about Scott Johnson doing whatever he wants and taking whatever job suits him; this decision will be made for other people," he reveals, alluding to the 17-year-old son who may just need him in Sydney. "It's heart against want and all that, and I've got to do what's right, so nobody gets hurt. This [standing in as Welsh coach] has put a spanner in the works. I've finally found a country that I fit into as a person and it will hard to leave it. But if I have to, I have to. I hope to get it all sorted out soon, because it's weighing on everyone's backs here, not least mine."

In fact, it is obviously weighing on Johnson's the most as he is genuinely bitten by the bug that is Wales. The doubters may question his support of Ruddock, of his ability to take the step up from No 2, but they cannot dare question his commitment.

"Look mate, I've knocked head coaching jobs back in the time I've been here but not because I was nervous about being a No 1 but because I'd haven't found something I wanted to do. Over time, I've learnt that some certain coaches fit different dresses and some different suits. There's teams I couldn't coach as it wouldn't be right for my personality and it wouldn't be right for theirs. There'd be no synergy." So is there in Wales then? "Well, yeah," he insists. "This country represents basically what I am and I find that very hard to beat, because I've gelled so well with the community and with a set of players who stand for what I stand for. I was considered something of a maverick where I come from. I was a public schoolboy playing a white-collared game, who wore a chip on his shoulder and I probably spent a lot time worrying about things I shouldn't have back in Australia and politics in the sport was one of them."

Alas, if Johnson suspected he had found a political-free zone in Welsh rugby, events in the past week must have put him right. But surely he must have realised that before? "Gee mate, haven't I?" he laughs. "It's been a whirlwind - I've had three coaches in five years. There I was in 2001 and I'd only been in a new country with a new job for about an hour and the coach [Graham Henry] who employed me goes and resigns. I can tell you I was as shocked then as I am now. It's no great difference actually, and the saddest part is that you never get better at dealing with it."

Deal with it he has, though, and is determined to carry on doing so. "No matter what anybody says or implies, I never sought this job. But now I've got to make the best of it. I'll do it my way and if anybody doesn't like it then so be it. It won't matter to me too much, as I don't read the Welsh papers and don't watch the Welsh telly. I understand that sometimes there are things you just have to do and this is one of those times because I'm supporting the right people. Who are those people? Well, you know this team's grown and grown over the years and in that era I've seen them at their most down and their most joyous. I know what they're capable of. And the fact is now that here's another difficult situation, so they must bind together and hold strong till the end of the campaign and it's all straightened out.

"I can only tell from the times I've seen them in adversity before but I would be disappointed if they didn't get through it. If I didn't think they could, and not represent me in the manner I want to be represented, then I wouldn't have taken this on. Yeah, I'm privileged to be doing it. I'm proud of the way this Welsh squad are, as people more than rugby players. Rugby's second in all this."

For at least 80 minutes in Dublin on Sunday it will blessedly be first again. Johnson - and, yes, Wales - will say amen to that.