Disagreeing with Michael Cheika and returning rugby to the top table of Australian sport: they’re the two chief agenda items for Scott Johnson as he begins his role as Australia’s first Director of Rugby.
Johnson returned home on Thursday after his commitments with the Scottish Rugby Union finally came to a close, at last bringing together the brains-trust Rugby Australia hopes will improve the Wallabies’ immediate fortunes but also correct the game’s pathways to maximise the level of talent that reaches the top level.
Johnson will sit alongside Cheika and former dual international Michael O’Connor on a new three-man Wallabies selection panel, an environment in which he fully expects to butt heads with both men amid “dynamic” discussions around players and team structure.
“I think I’ve got a strong personality, too, we’re in a peoples business, you’ve got to know people, I’ve got a lot of good people here,” Johnson told reporters when asked how he thought he’d get on with Cheika.
“I keep saying this, I’ve travelled all over the world and Australia is considered over-achievers when you consider the natural predators we’ve got and the sports available for athletes. It’s a competitive market, so we’ve got to get together. We’ve got a lot of good people here.
“Cheik’s got great drive, great passion to get a team going good, and I understand that.
“There are going to be times we all disagree, that’s fine. If you get two people who always agree, you’ve got one too many, haven’t you? It’s got to be dynamic because we both want what’s best for the game and the best for the team. He’ll want the best for the Wallabies and we have a longer term view of it, too, so it’ll be good.”
While he downplayed suggestions the panel would require a casting vote on player selections, Johnson said he was hopeful that same dynamic environment would allow decisions to be based on logic rather than emotion. He wouldn’t however be drawn on whether the Wallabies captaincy would be part of those discussions.
As for his immediate plans, Johnson will head around Australia’s Super Rugby franchises with an eye on bringing each of the clubs onto the same page.
Melbourne Rebels coach Dave Wessels is looking for a response from his side in Brisbane, after they blew two golden opportunities in South Africa.
There’s also the increasingly urgent task of finding a replacement for Cheika from 2020 onwards, a process he says Rugby Australia must get right if the game is serious about avoiding the same dips in popularity it has suffered over the past two decades.
Still, Johnson says the Wallabies haven’t been too far away under Cheika either, a belief that belies their 4-9 Test record from 2018.
“Well, win a few more games,” Johnson joked when asked what area the Wallabies most needed to improve. “That’s what we’ve got to do, we know that. Like I said, we’re not a million miles off. We’re pretty hard markers in the south, we play the best team in the world currently all the time, or more regularly than most, we understand that, so the markers are pretty high. We’ve got to set our standard.
“We understand that our cousins [New Zealand] across the pond have done pretty good. We often talk; we’ve got to get the guys fitter, the accruement and the skill that we talk about, we’ve got to get that more consistent, and that’s in our DNA don’t forget that. That’s what we are about as a country and that’s important to us; it’s important that we’re renowned for it, it’s important for me that we’re renowned for it, too.”
There’s no doubting what a Rugby World Cup win could mean for the game in Australia and the generation of kids it would inspire. But for the moment, the chances of that playing out from September appear incredibly slim.
Still, Johnson wants to return Australian rugby to the position it held at its peak; a time when the Wallabies were the envy of the rugby world, a team full of players who used their brains as much as their brawn.
“We have as much chance as anyone else,” Johnson said when asked about the Wallabies’ World Cup hopes. “We have a pretty formidable record but we can’t rely on that, and don’t expect to. We are trying to get prominence in a very dynamic sporting landscape and we want to stand for something. Our rugby DNA is acumen and skill and that’s what I want to be.
“The rugby fraternity and rugby public, and sporting public, will understand that.
“We are pretty proud of what is on our coat of arms; we have two animals that don’t walk backwards; I quite like that. So with anything in a competitive sense we won’t be walking backwards.”