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Thursday, January 26, 2006

 

International Rugby: Pommy basher who walks the talk for Wales

Picture: Paul Ackford, England and Lions forward.
Source: The Daily Telegraph
By: Paul Ackford


"England are a team everyone wants to beat," he said simply. "Why? If you look at the British Isles, England is the big master. You own most of it. You have the bigger population and it's the minnows against the chiefs. All you need in sport is an excuse and England is that excuse. If you can't blame anyone else, blame them. If I were English, I'd try to get American rugby strong so they can take over that mantle."

Why do they call Mike Ruddock 'bus'? Because Scott Johnson is the real coach of Wales.

Not my words but those on a fairly obscure website which appear when you type in the name of the man responsible for providing Wales with fire and flare. Quite a tribute to an Aussie who has had a significant say in the fortunes of his adopted country since the day, in February 2002, when Graham Henry, then head coach, welcomed him as his assistant then promptly ran up the white flag and resigned 24 hours later.

I had a problem with Johnson before we chatted. I had met him a couple of times and thought he was all mouth and no trousers. I didn't like the way he ponced about on the pitch in shorts during internationals, behaving more like Wales's 16th player than a 43-year-old skills coach. And I didn't understand why he was held in such high regard. I do now. Johnson liberates what the Welsh themselves are reluctant to acknowledge publicly.

"England are a team everyone wants to beat," he said simply. "Why? If you look at the British Isles, England is the big master. You own most of it. You have the bigger population and it's the minnows against the chiefs. All you need in sport is an excuse and England is that excuse. If you can't blame anyone else, blame them. If I were English, I'd try to get American rugby strong so they can take over that mantle."

The rant is delivered with a chuckle but it is still fairly strong stuff given that the England-Wales firecracker is less than a fortnight away and most coaches are trying to wind in the rhetoric rather than let rip. But that's Johnson's style. He tells it as he sees it, even if it means flagging up the early inadequacies of his own squad.

"When I first got here I noticed a difference in attitude between Australia and Wales. I'd say that both countries wear a chip on their shoulder but I think that the sporting mentality of Australians is to put their finger in the air and say, 'Stuff you. We're going to show you'. With Wales, the reaction was typical of Welsh culture generally in that the players tended to duck their head a little bit. Since those times, though, they've tended to look people in the eye more."

Most people drone on about the improvement in Welsh fitness and the concomitant hike in technical competence as the principal reasons behind their recent resurgence and both are true up to a point. But you don't win a championship on a combination of muscles and flair. You win it, as Johnson suggests, through an excess of belligerent confidence. How else to explain Wales's glorious revival in the second half against France and their crushing destruction of Ireland to clinch their first Grand Slam since 1978?

The question now, of course, as Wales face the full force of second season syndrome when everyone steps up a notch to confront the champions, is what's in the locker this time? "As if I'm going to tell you that," Johnson said. "The cold-hearted analogy I like is that, if everyone in sport is using all the analysis stuff and studying the opposition constantly then, in theory, Shane Warne shouldn't get another Test wicket. So my response is not to care if you think you know what we're going to do, we're just going to do it a little bit better and you're going to have to defend it. I'm under no illusions. We're coming down to score more tries than you. It's pretty simple."

Johnson is full of those Warne-type homilies which, on first inspection, appear glib but which, after further scrutiny, seem earthed in common sense and experience. Earlier in the conversation he used a parenting analogy to explain his philosophy of enthusing players. "The most commonly used phrase as a parent is can't," he said. "Well, I'm a big believer that if someone tells someone they can't do something, they won't. It's belief in the talent that we're after, not negatives."

Another example of Johnson's homespun philosophy is his use of certain players as indicators of his squad's vitality. "As a coach you sort of get litmus people," he said, "players who test the water. They talk to you without them knowing they are doing so. A common complaint from players is that they are tired or sore. But if the barometers are still running around at 100mph then you know the rest are bullshitting."

So far so (relatively) ordinary. A lot of coaches round the world, Henry, Australian Eddie Jones and Ireland's Eddie O'Sullivan, all impress with wisecracking sound bites now and again. But where Johnson is different - and where, initially, I found him insufferable until I understood him better - is in his desire to walk the talk.

"There's a saying in business that if you've got two managers who always agree, then you've got one too many managers. When I sat with Steve Hansen [Ruddock's predecessor as coach of Wales] watching games, we tended to say the same thing at the same time. So I felt that one of us needed a different perspective of what was going on on the shop floor and I'd seen his legs and it couldn't be Steve. I also thought that if I was going to do it right I had to feel what the players were feeling.

"Hence the shorts. If they were freezing cold I wanted to feel freezing cold. At the time the squad weren't as vociferous a group as they are now. They were quite reserved and couldn't talk to me. And that's how it started. I was trying to get some communication going. Early on there were a few times when I forgot I wasn't meant to be on the pitch sledging the opposition but I got away with it. Now I've become superfluous but I still enjoy it because it's part of what I do this job for and because I get the best view in the house."

You can't stay cross with a man who admits that. At least I can't. Johnson may be a strange mix, an Aussie called Scott with a grudge against England helping out Wales. He may be in the midst of some strange mid-life crisis. But, as England will find out soon at Twickenham, at least he is out there trying to make a difference.
Comments:
Hey not badly written for a Cobber

second season syndrome- PA will be pleased

this guy may be an enigma but he surely oozes Outa-the -box thinking

MMNN time to start that revolution

A BETTER GAME FOR ALL
 
I wonder how "light five" Mr Mallet would have liked to play with a pack-type that he supports- against Paul Ackford & Dooly in a typical Twickers encounter?  
Ackford is an entertaining writer and he has more credence, having been at the coal face.

Ex-bobby too.
 
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