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Johnston's brother blazes the trail but out-half Bill has big ambitions

The Munster academy out-half is fit again and ready for Ireland U20s’ World Championship.

LIKE OLDER BROTHER David before him, Bill Johnston came through the ranks at Clonmel RFC and Rockwell College but the pair of Tipperary natives had to wait until last summer to finally play together.

Their moment to link up on the pitch for the first time came in Munster’s pre-season clash with Grenoble at Thomond Park, as then 18-year-old out-half Bill replaced Tyler Bleyendaal in the first half with David having started at fullback.

Munster’s Bill Johnston Johnston played in all three of Munster's pre-season fixtures.

The following weekend, Bill came on for David in the fixture against Connacht before they were involved in the win over London Irish, this time with the younger Johnston starting at out-half.

Both promising youngsters appeared set to go on and win senior caps under Anthony Foley over the course of the season that has followed but only David was able to do so.

The 22-year-old made nine Pro12 appearances in total, including five starts at outside centre, but younger brother Bill had a cruelly-disrupted season.

Injury to his left shoulder in September halted the now 19-year-old’s progress but he managed to make a return to B&I Cup action coming towards Christmas, playing alongside David in three fixtures.

Johnston then looked set to star in the Ireland U20s’ Six Nations campaign but he dislocated his right shoulder in a warm-up game against a Munster Development side and has been sidelined up until the last month or so.

Now back to full fitness, he is readying himself for the start of the World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester on Tuesday, when Nigel Carolan’s Ireland face Wales [KO 5.30pm, TG4].

“It was tough but I’m delighted now to be back playing,” says Johnston of his season so far. “I had a great support team with me. The lads in Munster Rugby – Mark Beggs, Joe McGinley – they put in hours of work to help me recover. I’m so grateful for that.

Bill Johnston Johnston will compete with Johnny McPhillips for the 10 shirt. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I’ve a great family and, of course, my brother is involved in Munster too so we had plenty of discussions about what was going on in the senior team so I wasn’t feeling too left out.

“Even Nigel, we had regular phone calls and email chats. He’d send me on plays, let me know what was happening and, of course, looking at the Six Nations games very closely hoping that I’d be playing for this team in June.”

Unsurprisingly for a young man who comes across as extremely mature and level-headed, Johnston says he “wouldn’t find it daunting at all” to make his Ireland U20 debut at a World Championship.

Indeed, the impression is that very little fazes the Clonmel man.

He has been highly-regarded as a superb prospect for several years now and helped Rockwell to their 2015 Munster Schools Senior Cup title in 2015.

Though only fresh out of school last summer and still in the sub-academy at that point, Munster head coach Anthony Foley said the province’s senior players were “raving about him” and underlined that Johnston is “a very impressive individual.”

The transition into the senior set-up for Johnston – who was coached by his father at U6, U8 and U10 levels in Clonmel – was certainly made smoother by the presence of David in the Munster squad.

“He’s three years older than me so he was always playing an age grade or two above me,” says Johnston. “That really blazed the trail almost, it was great that I could follow my brother.

David Johnston 22-year-old David has featured for Munster. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“He showed me what to eat, how to train, what he was doing. I was able to do that at home with him and it was just a great environment. My parents supported me all the way through school playing schools rugby and that’s where it all started.

“It was such an honour to play with him and it was great for our family to be at the games and see the two of us playing. I think he surpassed his expectations getting a lot of game time in the centre and at 15.

“I’m sure he’s going to kick on now in the pre-season and hopefully next year, get a bit more.”

Johnston is “really proud” of what his brother has achieved with Munster so far, but you sense that he is confident he can continue to follow in the trail that is being blazed ahead of him.

Rockwell College played an important part in the Johnston brothers’ development – David won the 2012 Munster senior title – and the young out-half says the school prepared him for the challenges he now faces.

“The environment there is semi-professional, honestly,” says Johnston.

“My coach Mark Butler [who has been appointed as the provincial talent coach in Munster] had us on the pitch every day, in the gym, we’d be practicing our skills at lunch time and I suppose that target that’s put in front of your face – the Senior Cup – in September when the season starts.

“As a group, you decide ‘we’re going to go for this.’ Credit to that team I played with, my best friends, going through the whole season with them was such a great journey. To win it with them was amazing, playing in that team. I’ll never forget it.”

MunsterÕs Bill Johnston The out-half is highly rated in Munster.

Having joined Garryowen this season for his club rugby, Johnston has also “just about” got through his first year of International Business at the University of Limerick.

While it was majorly disappointing to be injured for much of the season, the 19-year-old took advantage of his time on the sidelines to tick off his assignments and enjoy the experience of being in college.

He is absorbed totally in rugby now, however, as he looks towards this World Championship and a future with Munster that many in the game expect to be very bright.

“It’s been my dream, I’d by lying if I said it wasn’t, since I was a young kid playing rugby with my brother outside,” says Johnston – who is underage at U20 level again next season – of playing professional rugby.

“The platform is there to go on from U20s to the professional level and I definitely have aspirations to play that.

“I know there are obstacles that could potentially stand in the way. You have to work hard, you have to show up every day to train and I think I’ve shown I’m prepared to do that every day.”

Impressing provincial coaches and the many other watching eyes at this tournament is a motivation for every single player involved but being the competitor he is, Johnston is more focused on helping Ireland to success.

“My goal is to win as many games as I can with this group,” says the out-half. “They’re a super bunch of lads and I didn’t feel unwelcome at all coming back in, they’re delighted to see me. I want to play hard for them, I want to get some wins.

“Representing your country, there’s nothing else going through your head but winning the match you’re playing. It’s the battle in front of your face – whether it’s Wales, New Zealand or Georgia – I want to win those games.”

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Murray Kinsella

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