Jocular Johnson up to his old tricks
ESPN Australia's Greg Growden
January 31, 2013
Interim boss Scott Johnson has been handed the Scotland reins until the summer © PA Photos
A master of disguises, Scott Johnson is a genius at irritating the over-serious, over-sensitive. This free-spirit knows how to motivate the troops, even to the extent of organising Naked Olympic competitions. In Australia, we describe him as a 'rat bag'- an endearing colloquial term for the eccentric, non-conformist.
There's all this and so much more to Scotland's interim coach. Sydney's loss is Edinburgh's gain, because if anyone is going to revive Scotland it is this sometimes dishevelled, always cheeky figure. Why? Because he knows all about getting the best out of those who believe or can be convinced into believing they are downtrodden.
There was much mirth in the Australian rugby ranks when we heard he was up to his usual high-jinks at the official Six Nations launch as he mocked England over its perceived injury woes with: "Well, that just leaves them with another 40,000 players to pick from."
This was vintage Johnson, as he has made his reputation poking his tongue at big, ugly monsters. It revived memories of when he was Wallabies assistant coach to John Connolly, and decided to take on those 'bricks with eyes'- the All Blacks.
A highlight was when he turned a Wallabies media conference into an episode of MASH meets the Marx Brothers. For years, Johnson had delighted in lampooning his opponents. While working with Wales, he described New Zealand as a 'poxy little island in the South Pacific.' He apologised the next day, explaining: "Poxy island in the Pacific- sorry, two poxy islands."
This time around before the 2006 Bledisloe Cup match in Brisbane, Johnson suddenly pulled off his Wallabies team top, revealing an army camouflage T-shirt that had printed across the front: 'Can I sit here?' He put a combat bucket hat on his head, before showing off the back of the T-shirt, revealing the words: "Paranoia is curable."
His antics had been driven by complaints from the All Blacks brains trust over where Johnson had sat during the previous Test in Christchurch. They were worried that as he was so close to the ground he would decipher their lineout calls and moves.
They did have some reason to be fearful. During the 2001 Lions tour, Johnson, then with Australia A, had succeeded in working out the tourist's lineout calls by wandering along the sideline during a midweek match in Coffs Harbour.
Even Australians have had cause to be edgy. Before he joined the Wallabies, the last sighting of Johnson was on the sideline at Millennium Stadium in 2005 in a scarlet tracksuit and dark baggy shorts, screaming at the Welsh pack, which he was in charge of, to obliterate the visitors. The Johnson blast worked. Wales won.
His out-there behaviour is nothing new. It was common even when he was a player. A former NSW and Australian U21 No.10, Johnson often did the unexpected. A celebrated moment was when playing for the Eastwood club in the match of the round, he misread the scoreboard.
With seconds to go, and Eastwood close to scoring, Johnson ended the game by booting the ball over the sideline. Fair enough, as he thought Eastwood were two points ahead. They were actually two points down, which his teammates reminded him of in a somewhat threatening tone when his kick coincided with the referee reaching for his whistle. Nonetheless, Johnson remains an admired figure in Sydney clubland. This has a lot to do with his first major coaching stint where he took on Penrith, a poor club based in a rough, tough part of outer Sydney.
ESPN Austraila's Russell Barwick and Greg Growden preview the Six Nations
Penrith had few resources, but Johnson soon succeeded in getting the best out of his mean, gnarly men from the mountains. Johnson learnt a lot from his late father Geoff, a quality athletics and rugby coach, who knew the importance of the common touch. (Johnson Senior was a teetotaller, who had no interest in golf and lived for a cup of tea. In honour of his father, Scott, for years organised a golf tournament where the first prize was a teapot.)
Team harmony at Penrith was never a problem after Johnson organised a Naked Olympics as a break from training. In a packed program, the main event was the nude 100-metre dash, where the players, only allowed to wear boots and footy socks, sprinted for the line with a ball between their knees. If they dropped the ball, they could not pick it up with their hands- prompting amazing Kama Sutra-esque scenes.
A star performer was Scot Tommy McLaren, whose mother was able to identify him from a Sydney Morning Herald photograph of the sprint taken from the rear, because he was 'wearing his school socks.'
Sure Scotland is cold. So too is Penrith in the middle of winter. The Scotland Six Nations squad has been warned.
Readers in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands can tune in to see Greg Growden, Matt Burke and host Russell Barwick on ESPN's live and exclusive coverage of the Six Nations Championship. Check local guides for details.
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