RUGBY is fundamentally a very simple game. You generate front-foot ball whenever possible, you kick smart and chase hard when you have to, you attack space when you can, you pass accurately at the right times – and if you manage to do all of that on a consistent basis, plus make your tackles, then you’ll win more games than you lose.
And if you don’t, then you are up against it – especially during a Six Nations campaign when every bullet fired is a live one.
Amidst all the naval-gazing in the aftermath of Scotland’s docile defeat in France last Saturday, it is refreshing to hear a member of the vanquished team calling it straight.
Sam Johnson was born and raised in Australia, and while his three-year residency might have been sufficient to get him into a Scotland jersey, it does not seem to have been long enough to eradicate that down-to-earth honesty which is very deliberately tutored out of players who have only known the Scottish [SRU] way of doing things.
- Where did it all go wrong, Sam?
“I think the French really slowed us down around the ruck. As a back, I was looking up and seeing space but all it takes is that fraction of a second and then it’s gone. Then we just seemed to get caught on the back foot. Personally, I don’t think we kicked enough to turn that big pack around. It was a disappointing result – what can you say, really? – but we go again. We’ve reviewed it and now we look forward to Wales next week.”
- What did Gregor Townsend have to say about it?
“We copped a bit of bollocking from the coaches about it. So far in these first few rounds … yeah, we beat Italy, but I don’t think we’ve had a full 80 minutes as the results have shown. He’s a pretty calm, relaxed guy. I wouldn’t say he was kicking and screaming but … like, for Gregor … he was letting us know where we need to improve and everything like that. It’s probably the least happy I have seen him, and deservedly so.”
- So, what needs to change?
“That contact area, that aggression. Just the consistency. Against Ireland, 95% of the game we were up and into them, but that 5% at international level is when they score their tries. It was the same against France, we did a lot of good stuff but then our kick-chase wasn’t good enough on 12 minutes and they cut through and scored. Things like that at international level, you can’t get away with it.”
- Is the pressure building after two defeats on the bounce?
“For me, you take the emotion out of it. We can get caught up in: ‘We need to do this, we need to do that’. But at the end of the day if we change our mindset and get our clarity right, and know what we’re doing out on the field, then we can express ourselves and play rugby. And we need to do that for 80 minutes if we’re going to win against a top, hot Wales team.”
Next Saturday’s opponents are riding high after 12 wins on the bounce, the three most recent setting them on course for a third Grand Slam in 11 years, which is not bad for a country of just over half the population of Scotland. But Johnson isn’t disposed to exhibiting great reverence for Warren Gatland’s side.
The confrontational Kiwi coach says his team have forgotten how to lose, but the Scotland inside-centre (who could end up at outside-centre next weekend) isn’t buying that.
“If you want a reference, look at when Scarlets came to Scotstoun [to play Glasgow Warriors] a few months ago,” states Johnson. “They had Jon Davies at 13 and I’m not sure who was at 12, and I think everyone expected them to walk over us – but with 14 players we took them to town. I find its all mindset. Whoever hits hardest and runs the longest for 80 minutes is going to win the game.
“We are realistic of the challenge ahead and it is the hardest challenge to date – they are going for the Grand Slam and it seems like everyone [in their team] knows what they are doing – but they are coming to BT Murrayfield, we have 40,000 or whatever (fans) and its going to be a great contest. We have to shape up and go for 80 minutes.
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“It is easier when you are winning,” he continues. “But with any team that rocks up and puts them on the back foot and shocks them, then it’s going to be: ‘Oh shit, what are we going to do now?’
“Defence is going to be the key, just getting off the line continuously and hitting them behind the gain-line, making them kick on our terms I think will go a long way for who wins the battle.
“This is our job, so you have to go out there and expect to perform because if you don’t perform you have to find a new job, don’t you?
“We know the challenge it’s going to be. You have to be realistic, it’s going to be a huge challenge – Wales and then England away – but as professional rugby players we need to try and get the clarity right, we need to be aggressive out on the field.”
Sounds straight-forward. And why not? Certainly, Wales have never pretended that what they do is complicated – but they do what they do with maximum accuracy, consistency and power.
After all, rugby is still fundamentally a very simple game.