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'It was tough to leave my childhood club, but an opportunity like this doesn't fall in your lap for no reason'

After falling down the pecking order at Munster, Bill Johnston is taking the chance to reinvent himself up North.

Former Munster man, Bill Johnston.
Former Munster man, Bill Johnston.
Image: Alex Davidson/INPHO

WHEN HE NEEDS to draw inspiration in his life, Bill Johnston harks back to three years ago to his Ireland U20s days.

Back then he was a fresh-faced prospect in the Munster Academy, the Tipperary man seen as the next man off the conveyor belt following the retirement of Ronan O’Gara and expected to live up to the potential that the now departed JJ Hanrahan hadn’t.

Like all best plans, however, fate seems to have a way of intervening when you least expect it to. Just when Johnston was hoping he would be a key member of the side that would eventually go on to reach the final of the Junior World Championships in 2016, he dislocated his shoulder in the infamous win over the Baby Blacks that would rule him out of the rest of the tournament.

That began a frustrating run of bad injury luck for the Garryowen club man, who would return from injury to play for the U20s, only to fracture his fibula on British and Irish Cup duty, which put him back in the medical room again when he was hoping his next step would be into the senior squad.

In his absence, others emerged. Tyler Bleyendaal battled back from his own injury demons to stake a claim, while Ian Keatley was an ever-present in the Munster half-back rotation.

JJ Hanrahan returned from his sojourn in Northampton, and when Joey Carbery arrived from Leinster, with the promise of regular game time in the big matches, the writing was on the wall for Johnston, now languishing fourth on the depth chart in the Thomond Park dressing room.

One thing Johnston never lost, however, was confidence in his own ability.

“That was amazing, that was a bit of a whirlwind really because I had just come back from an injury leading up to that World Cup and it was doubtful I’d make it back in time,” he says of his experience at the 2016 Junior Worlds.

I had almost been put into a corner and really had to back myself, it was strange. I’ve looked at that point for inspiration a lot of times in that I maybe wasn’t the best prepared since I was coming back from injury, but I was put front and centre and expected to perform, and I expected myself to perform.

“It’s definitely something I look back on with pride, especially since the year after were the two years I had my main injury struggles. I was coming back from injury, had a few AIL games and then suddenly I was starting against France down at Donnybrook, and I’d only known the guys I was playing with for 10 days at the most and I was thrown in the deep end – but we won the game and that was great.

Those two games in particular I look back on and use as inspiration because I know I can be front and centre and take the bull by the horns.”

While he’s not lacking in confidence, Johnston was lacking in opportunities. With the three fly-halves ahead of him in the pecking order, the chances he would get the game time he needed to fully develop as a young fly-half with designs on more than just warming the bench were low indeed.

As he sat and watched former U20s teammates – the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Adam McBurney, Greg Jones and Rob Lyttle – getting regular minutes up in Ulster, he was left sitting in the stands marooned on 12 caps for Munster and with very little prospects of improving drastically on that total.

“Those weeks when you were not involved in a PRO14 or Champions Cup game, teamsheets would come out on Thursday and Friday and you see the names of guys you have played against,” he recalls.

“It gets put in black and white very quickly in your head that if these guys can do it I want to be able to do it. You want to play in those games and make a career for yourself. You do feel it is not entirely in your own hands when you do not get the chance to do it on the field, but you cannot make excuses. It is something you can take control of yourself.”

With that in mind, a change was needed. It wasn’t an easy decision, not by any stretch of the imagination, but whenever the 22-year-old weighed up his love for his home province against the need to become the best player he knew he could be, it was the latter that won out.

Using the likes of Eric O’Sullivan, Alan O’Connor, Nick Timoney and John Cooney before him as examples, when the interest from Ulster first materialised it turned his head. The chance for a new beginning, still within Ireland, was crucial, while the opportunity to develop alongside a pair of young, promising fly-halves in Billy Burns and Michael Lowry was another pull factor.

Bill Johnston Johnston found himself down the pecking order at Munster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It was tough (to leave Munster), since it was my childhood club,” continues Johnston.

“It is cliched, but you went to all the games and (Ronan) O’Gara and (Peter) Stringer were my heroes growing up and you always want to fulfil that kind of dream. And I did to a degree. I represented the senior team a few times which was such an honour for me, my family, my friends, my club, my school to do that.

But it got to a stage there was a lot of talented experienced guys in the same position as me and it just came to a point to stay on this road or not. An opportunity came up and one like this does not fall in your lap for no reason.

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“I have really enjoyed it so far here, I have been developing loads and definitely in terms of my skills, the change of environment has been great given me a new lease of life if you like. It has helped me both personally and on the rugby side.”

Sometimes a change of scenery is all that’s needed for a player. You don’t see it quite so much in rugby circles, but over in America it’s a common occurrence where two teams will swap under-performing players in the hope that joining a new team and entering a new system will revitalise their careers.

“You see these things in movies or TVs or you hear of other people talking about a fresh start, no one really knows you, you do not have a label put on yourself by others in a particular environment,” says Johnston.

To be able to go somewhere where no one knows you, apart from what you do on a daily basis, you can really be who you want to be and behave as you want to behave. Just pick up on any traits you want to change yourself.”

With that fresh start in mind, now Johnston has the chance to make his mark on an Ulster side that are on the way up. Having made the knockouts of both the league and Europe last season, and with a generally more positive mood around the camp than what it was 12 months prior, there is a genuine belief that Ulster have turned a corner and are on the right path.

While his path to more game time isn’t guaranteed, with Burns the incumbent in the 10 jersey and Lowry seen as one of Ireland’s most exciting prospects – albeit having played most of his rugby at full-back, not fly-half – he’s now in a genuine battle for minutes to start the season rather than having to bide his time down in Munster.

He’ll never doubt himself though. 2016 taught him that he’s better than that. And with that positive mentality always propelling him forward, Ulster may have just pulled off a real coup.

- Originally published at 09.00 

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