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'I backed myself to come here because I saw an opportunity' - Ulster's Johnston finding feet after Munster switch

After a somewhat frustrating start at the northern province, the Tipperary man believes there are better times over the horizon.

WE’RE ROUGHLY AT the halfway stage of Bill Johnston’s first season since swapping Munster red for Ulster white, and it seems appropriate that, after picking up the Man of the Match award against the Cheetahs at the weekend, the fly-half gets a chance to assess how things have gone so far.

ulsters-bill-johnston Bill Johnston. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

His performance against the South Africans was one of control beyond his 23 years, particularly when you factor in the wet conditions and the Cheetahs’ ferocious line-speed, and was capped off with a perfectly executed crossfield kick for Robert Baloucoune to score Ulster’s second try.

“Backs are just getting lazy, they just like hanging out there, especially when they’re getting the rewards,” jokes the Tipperary man. “I might have to stop doing it so they do a bit of work infield!”

The display against the Cheetahs followed on from a hugely impressive cameo in coming on late in defeat to the Ospreys a week prior, Johnston making the most of whatever game time granted to him by the coaching staff at Kingspan Stadium, eager to emerge from the shadow of Billy Burns.

It has been a somewhat frustrating start to his Ulster tenure, with his 11 appearances this season — five of which have been starts — soured somewhat by being an unused substitute on three occasions and seeing himself outside the matchday squad four times.

Even when he has gotten an opportunity it’s been tough to impress, his debut coming in that nine-try thumping against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and since then he’s only started one game alongside stand-out scrum-half John Cooney, which hasn’t helped in assessing where exactly his game is at.

It hasn’t helped that Burns has found some form alongside Cooney as the weekly starter at fly-half, earning a call-up to the Ireland squad as a result, but Johnston isn’t shying away from the fact that he feels he hasn’t quite hit his straps yet since moving up north.

However, after battling through a tough few months settling in with his new team-mates in Belfast, the young fly-half believes there are better times over the horizon.

“I’ve backed myself to come here because I saw an opportunity but more importantly I’ve been backed by the coaches and my team-mates to fulfill my potential,” says the former Ireland Under-20s stand-out.

bill-johnston-is-presented-with-his-guinness-man-of-the-match-award-by-dave-callaghan Ulster’s Bill Johnston is presented with his Guinness Man of the Match award after the Toyota Cheetahs clash. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I’ve learnt a lot since August and September about how Dwayne wants me to play, how Dan wants me to manage the game. I admit I wasn’t there the first part of the season but I’ve gone through the fire, I’ve learnt lessons and that’s what I wanted to do.

“I’ve stayed patient and stuck in there with their support and they’ve helped me find a bit of form. I owe them a lot for just sticking with me and giving me the opportunities and I owe a lot to the players who stuck by me when I was making mistakes.

“I learnt to play the game a certain way in Munster and coming up here has certainly been a bit of a contrast. I probably wasn’t fully ready for it but it’s learning and I’m not going to be afraid of that.”

The recent break helped, although rather than helping him refresh and get away from the game, it only helped Johnston realise that that fire and passion for the game was still there, despite having to play a bit-part role under Dan McFarland thus far this season.

It’s a testament to how highly he’s regarded by the coaching staff, however, that he held off up-and-coming prospect Mike Lowry to start at fly-half against the Cheetahs, and his performance against the South Africans has certainly done nothing to suggest he’s likely to fall down the pecking order anytime soon.

With Burns likely to be away with Ireland over the next few weeks, his role will increase, with the provincial fly-half jersey needing to be occupied – even though that won’t happen this weekend with Ulster’s trip to Benetton postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak in Italy – and Johnston is determined to make the most of the chances that fall his way.

“I was happy with my own preparation over the little break and then in training after the break, and I’d been getting good feedback off the coaches that my game had accelerated in that time off. I came back with a real appetite,” claims the Munster man.

bill-johnston Johnston in training. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I missed it. I’d a week away with some of the lads here but by the second week of it, I found myself really missing rugby. I probably hadn’t felt that in a while. When that alarm went off at half six the first day back, I was buzzing. I showed that appetite in training.

“With Billy getting called up, it leaves a bit of a gap and a bit of room to grow and just step into that role a bit more. I had a lot of that in the first training week, and I was able to bring that off the bench last week. With Billy being away this week, it’s worked in my favour, I got to start.”

That hunger and desire should have Ulster fans excited. Johnston is making up for lost time that he never got down in Munster, and with the opportunities coming up over the next few weeks to prove that the potential is still there to be fulfilled, the 23-year-old is licking his lips.

“When the opportunity is there, you have to take it,” he insists. “You’re not doing yourself or the team justice if you don’t back your skills. I feel like my game is in a good place but there’s more to come.”

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