Matt Williams is by no means the first coach from Australia to try his luck on these Six Nations shores. Some of the most celebrated Wallaby-breeders have dabbled to varying degrees - the late, great Bob Templeton at Harlequins and Blackrock College, Bob Dwyer with Leicester and Bristol, John Connolly at Swansea and Bath and Alec Evans with a brief caretaker role with Wales. But Williams is breaking new ground by taking full-time charge of a national side.
The difference might be a subtle one were it not accompanied by a rallying cry for Scotland's cross-border players to come home. Williams acknowledges the ambiguity and, in forthright Aussie fashion, does not shy away from it.
"It is easier to be an outsider," he said. "I've been fortunate to play a bit in Wales, mainly for Swansea's seconds, then coach in Australia, in Ireland and now in Scotland. And one of the things I've learned is that the game of rugby is bigger than me, and bigger than any nation. Obviously, you want to win games and trophies, that's understood. But how I really judge myself as a coach - because you will get judged harshly by other people - is on clear criteria when I look in the mirror each day. The simple answer is, I want the game to get better for me having been in it."
To that end, Williams sees nothing strange in sporting a thistle on his lapel, or in challenging the 11 members of his initial 37-man squad who are based in England to consider consulting a Scottish estate agent. "Look around the other top nations," he said. "They have one or two players overseas at the most, some of them have none. At the World Cup, 15 of Scotland's 30 players were playing outside their country. For us to move forward, that is an untenable situation. If Scotland's pro- fessional teams are performing well - such as Edinburgh getting to the European quarter-finals - that will attract crowds and money, and we can't do that without our best players.
"When internationals come off contract in the Zurich Premiership, we want to talk to them, and each case will be handled individually. I could very easily not confront that issue, because it's controversial, and there's a history of allowing players to go. But history is also saying we're not winning, and you can't have it both ways. The hardest part is changing the perception that our professional teams are a burden, when in fact they are a resource, and an investment.
"The Irish have overcome that; Munster and Leinster pay for themselves and generate revenue, because they are a success. They also lead to success for the national side, which in Scotland is 75 per cent of our revenue. And all that pays for the grass roots."
Williams's roots are in Sydney, where he was a teacher before getting into coaching in 1992 with the Eastwood club. He had three years coaching New South Wales, without making a Super 12 semi-final, followed by four in Ireland with Leinster, with whom he won a Celtic League but, last season, lost a home semi-final in the Heineken Cup.
During an hour's inquisition by the media last Wednesday, he sat calm and unruffled, although with hands clasped in front of him throughout, as if fixed by glue. A simple, if unconscious, barrier perhaps, or maybe an appeal to a higher authority? Given Scotland's fifth-place ranking among the Six Nations, the latter might be worth a try. Already, Williams has dipped into the Gospel of St John ("there are no miracles, only very good signs") to describe the way ahead, and likened Murrayfield to "a temple" that the players should not take for granted.
Yet the 45-year-old's tablets of stone appear down-to-earth and etched in detail. "By the end of next year's championship," he said, "we're looking to have brought the young players through and changed our systems. That's about 15 games. I've told the leaders in the squad that if we set wins and losses as our targets, we're setting our young players up for failure. They've been beaten around the head that much after the World Cup, there's a feeling they want to change."
A youthful squad - only Tom Smith and Brendan Laney have reached 30 - are enjoying improved training facilities at the Scottish Institute of Sport in Stirling. A repeat of last year's storm-out by Budge Pountney, amid withering criticism of preparations, is unlikely. With Pountney and Bryan Redpath retired, Williams has turned to Scotland's best player, the fly-half Chris Paterson, as captain, albeit jointly with the hooker and vice-captain, Gordon Bulloch. "The nation wants to see guys in the Scottish jersey playing with passion and pride, for 80 minutes," said Williams.
Think passion and pride in Scottish rugby, and you think Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan, the men who appointed Williams. He in turn has recruited a group of mentors, including former internationals Finlay Calder and Gavin Hastings. "I'm a great believer in that mentor system," said Williams, recalling his own learning at the feet of "Bobby" Dwyer, Evans, Connolly - with whom he coached Australia A against England A in 1995 - and Rod Macqueen. "The only way you can do it is to get out there, and have someone tell you the truth."
The truth, the way and possibly the light will become clearer for Williams and Scotland in Cardiff next Saturday.Reuse content