SIX NATIONS: Temporary coaches moulding squad into title contenders
LONDON: AN outspoken Australian and a former England No 8 on temporary contracts have overseen a transformation in a Scotland rugby side who now have a chance of winning the Six Nations championship for the first time.
Scott Johnson, a coaching nomad who has worked in his native Australia and with Wales and the United States, was appointed interim head coach in succession to Andy Robinson after a humiliating loss to Tonga in November.
He subsequently combined forces with Dean Ryan, who has taken a 12-week sabbatical from his duties as a television pundit to coach the forwards.
The outcome has been victories over Italy and Ireland following a spirited performance in a losing cause in the first round against England with a home game against Wales and a trip to France to follow.
Scotland have always been a force in British rugby and were consistently the best of the four home teams at the time of the first World Cup in 1987, three years before their remarkable grand slam win over England.
However, since the professional era began in 1995, they have fallen off the pace and have not won the northern hemisphere championship since the Five Nations became Six at the turn of the century.
They failed to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 2011 and were bottom of the Six Nations table last year.
Johnson, who embraced the role of underdog before the tournament, stretched the boundaries of a sporting metaphor to the limits after Scotland's 12-8 win over Ireland in the last round.
The visitors scored the only try of the game and controlled 77 per cent of the possession and 71 per cent of the territory but still finished second best.
"At half-time I was thinking it was like Ali and Foreman's Rumble in the Jungle and we were lulling them into some false sense of security," Johnson said.
"My neck was getting sore looking down one side of the pitch."
Scotland won because Ireland failed to take their chances while Greig Laidlaw kicked four penalties and their giant lock and man-of-the-match Jim Hamilton produced a massive game in the tight and consistently disrupted the Irish lineout.
Laidlaw believes Johnson should get the head coach job on a long-term basis.
"A lot of the credit should go to him and the coaching team. They are striking a good balance between training and a bit of downtime off the field," he told BBC radio.
"Training has been really sharp. That's the main reason we are producing better performances."
Laidlaw, who played at flyhalf last year, has switched to scrumhalf, the position his uncle Roy filled with such distinction in the 1980s.
He said the team, currently second in the standings with Wales behind unbeaten England, believe they can win the championship.
"If we do our job right we'll give ourselves every chance," he said. "We still need to get past Wales. That will be a very tough test at Murrayfield, then we have one of the toughest tests after that in Paris.".
Scotland do have grounds for optimism against the defending champions this Saturday, who are bidding to become the first Wales team to win five consecutive away games in the championship.
British and Irish Lion Euan Murray returns at tighthead prop after missing the Ireland match on Feb 24 for religious reasons and Richie Gray forms a formidable partnership with Hamilton in the second row.
Fullback Stuart Hogg and wings Sean Maitland and Tom Visser are a pacy and potent back three who are front-runners for places in the Lions squad to tour Australia this year.
Meanwhile, Johnson has begun the mind games with his old team.
"They haven't done anything different for five years and I like that," he told Walesonline.com.
"Sides are confident enough to know what they are. It's about understanding what you are." Reuters