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'I felt I wasn't even in contention at stages at Munster and that dents confidence'

After being released by Munster, Dave Johnston has enjoyed an excellent first season with Ealing Trailfinders.

DAVE JOHNSTON WAS once one of Munster’s most promising young players, and the province weren’t afraid to tell us about it. As one of their own, they had high hopes for the Clonmel native down south. 

As part of Munster’s ‘the future is bright’ series, Johnston was profiled shortly after making his Pro12 debut in January 2016, at which time he had also just earned a two-year senior contract for the following season.

MunsterÕs David Johnston Johnston came up through the Munster academy. Source: Inpho

A former Ireland U18 and U19 international, Johnston’s career graph was progressing in the right direction as he transitioned from the academy to the senior set-up, making nine first-team appearances during that breakthrough 2015/16 campaign.

The future was bright.

Johnston would spend another two years at his native province, notably captaining Munster ‘A’ to the British and Irish Cup, but he would make just one more senior appearance before being released at the end of last season. 

Despite being a versatile option who could play centre or fullback, and becoming a pivotal figure for the ‘A’ team, Johnston — for whatever reason — was consistently overlooked, as the return of JJ Hanrahan and addition of Chris Farrell saw his opportunities dwindle.

Instead of Johnston been given the exposure and experience to build on his bright start in the pro game, his development stalled and the 25-year-old, a home-grown talent, found himself in the wilderness, becoming increasingly disillusioned and deterred.

The former Rockwell College man, the older brother of out-half Bill, was regularly training with Johann van Graan’s squad in UL, in addition to working hard on his individual skills, but it became pretty clear that he was not part of Munster’s long-term plans.

“I obviously wasn’t playing and that takes a lot of confidence from you,” he tells The42.

“You can test yourself as much as you want in training but when it gets to a game, that’s when you progress or figure out where you need to learn. I found the two years difficult. Not playing, not being looked at really.”

During those two seasons, Johnston was limited to B&I Cup appearances and the odd run-out for Garryowen in the All-Ireland League, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to grow as a player having tasted Pro12/Pro14 rugby during his time in the academy.

Instead of developing, he was going backwards. 

“When I started to play a couple of games I found myself improving as it’s just that exposure at that level, when you find out what you need to work on and what you’re good at,” he continues.

During those games, I felt I did well for where I was at at the time but obviously still needed more work. The changes in [head] coaches didn’t help and I’m not going to blame that for it, but I felt I was there but not even in contention at some stages. That really dents your confidence.

“A lot of the training I found as well was so pressurised, it was all about the consequences and I think where I was at the time, I still needed development and growth and learnings.

“Even just skill development and I felt doing that under constant pressure with big consequences, even in training, I felt I just stagnated and I didn’t improve. I was just trying to not make mistakes and I felt that’s how I was playing as well.

“Even when I was playing with Garryowen or the ‘A’ team, I was just trying to do the right thing at the right time because that’s what I thought the coaches wanted rather than playing instinctively as I had done back in school.”

David Johnston He made 10 senior appearances before being released. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

During the 2015/16 season, at which time he was in the third year of the academy, Johnston started five games for Munster and came off the bench to make four further appearances. The following year, he made one isolated start against Zebre in March 2017. The fullback played 80 minutes that day, and then that was it. He wouldn’t pull on the red jersey again. 

“You are being labelled as second or third choice and even in your own mind, it’s hard to get out of that mindset,” Johnston admits. “You even label yourself as the second choice so it’s kind of hard to outlive those expectations as well.

“I see it in other guys and I can only feel for them because I know how they’re feeling. I know during my time at Munster there were other guys working extremely hard and banging on the door but not getting a chance or the reward. It’s incredibly tough and completely erodes your confidence.”

Johnston knew from a couple of months out that Munster would not be renewing his contract for this season given the writing had been on the wall for some time. Even then, coming to terms with the reality of being released is a hugely difficult blow to comprehend for a young player, particularly when everything you have worked towards from school is to represent Munster. 

Having completed his degree in sports and exercise science from University of Limerick, Johnston seriously considered prioritising a career outside of rugby last summer, particularly as he had given so much for so little reward. Was it worth it anymore?

But, with the guidance and assistance of his agent, Niall Woods of Navy Blue Sport, Johnston knew his potential in the game had not expired yet, even if his experience at Munster had left him questioning his own ability and future in the game.

And so an opportunity presented itself at English Championship club Ealing Trailfinders, who offered Johnston the chance to revive his career by playing regular first-team rugby again. After discussions with director of rugby Ben Ward, he knew it was a good fit.

“I wasn’t really too sure what I wanted to do but I had given so much to rugby and put so much into it, I didn’t feel I got the rewards or the enjoyment that I wanted,” he continues.

“I’m still obsessed with it and still love it and that’s why I said to myself I need to give myself another chance, I deserve a full crack at this.

“I finished college at the same time so was free to do what I wanted and I wanted to give it another full go. With Ealing and the direction they’re going, I really felt it wasn’t a step down with no future to progress, it was a lateral step to go forward.

“If it had been another club in for me, I may not have been as enthusiastic about it but seeing other guys there, I just got a good feeling from the place. I wasn’t stepping down to be comfortable, I was stepping across to become better.”

Johnston was one of several new arrivals at Ealing last summer but instantly hit the ground running in west London, making his debut on the opening day of the Championship season against London Irish.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 23.15.27 Johnston has enjoyed an excellent debut season with Ealing Source: Dave Johnston/Instagram

Operating between fullback and outside centre, the Tipperary man has enjoyed the benefit of consistent game-time this season, starting 16 games for Ealing, 11 of which were starts in the backfield. 

With Ealing developing an expansive and exciting brand of attacking rugby, and scoring an incredible 144 tries this term, Johnston has thrived in a new environment as the club finished runners-up behind Irish, while claiming the Championship Cup title a fortnight ago.

“It’s a group of guys coming from other big clubs in a similar position to me,” he says.

“The age of the squad is quite young. A lot of guys have come from bigger clubs and we’ve all taken what we’ve learnt in those environments and brought it to Ealing. I was happy to have a new start, a new challenge, because I came over from a pretty low physiological perspective.

“To just give everything to Ealing since moving over has been really refreshing. It took a bit of getting used to, just finding myself. The team is quite young and I would be kind of one of the older guys so to kind of find my role having been one of the lower guys in Munster to finding myself up near the top at Ealing has been a bit of a change but it’s something I’ve got used to and grown into.”

While Johnston, who scored five tries during his maiden season in Championship rugby, has found his feet again thanks to regular minutes on the pitch, he says simply working with coaches in an environment he is valued in has been a major factor in his change of mindset.

He explains: “The game a few weekends ago, I was pretty happy with how I went but thinking back to it now, I don’t even remember what I did, it just seemed to flow and the coaches here, that’s what they want from me. They want me to express myself and I’m finding that again for the first time in a long time. Since school probably. I’m enjoying it again.

“I can empathise with other guys. I can see guys in squads in Ireland who are trying really, really hard but not getting their rewards, and sometimes you just don’t get the reward from it. Coming over here is a fresh start. Anything I say in meetings has value, anything I do on the pitch has a lot of value so immediately I felt better about myself and that I was of value to the team rather than just being part of the squad as it was back in Munster.”

Although Johnston is now in a better place mentally and has thoroughly enjoyed his first season at Ealing, so much so that he was rewarded with a contract extension into next year, there is still lingering disappointment over how his Munster career unfolded. 

“I still find it tough. I initially separated myself from it [Munster], didn’t really watch a lot of the games but now that I’m happy with where I am, I’m happy to support the guys and a lot of them I’m still good friends with.

“With about six to eight months to go with my contract, I knew I was leaving or I knew I needed to leave. I was already in that mindset before I actually left so when I started with Ealing, I was stuck into it straight away, I just wanted to give it everything I had as I knew that’s where my future was going to be.”

David Johnston with his parents Johnston with his parents after a Munster 'A' game. Source: Camersport/Rachel Holborn/INPHO

As an example of how he completely stagnated at Munster, Johnston recalls: “For me personally, in my last year at Munster, I wasn’t happy with my passing off my left hand. Just the way it was spinning. It was only a small thing but it wasn’t spinning as I wanted and I was trying unbelievably hard to get it right but couldn’t.

“I spent hours and hours with guys after training trying to fix this small thing but couldn’t get it right. And then after a few months here, coming at it from a different mindset has transformed that skill straight away and transformed a lot of my skills.

“I’m way happier with where my skillset is at the moment and having that in place I’m not worrying going into games, whereas at home I was worrying if the ball comes on that side, I didn’t know if I could rip it 20 metres. Now I’m not even thinking about it, just going back to what I used to do when I was younger, just playing.”

Johnston is in a good place, as are Ealing.

After finishing second in the Championship for the second year running, the club have managed to retain most of their squad and will be primed for a promotion tilt next season now that London Irish have gone up.

“I’m really happy and I’m back to just enjoying it,” Johnston adds.

My head is clear and I’m happy with where my development is going. That’s the main thing for me, just to be happy with myself. As a team, we have shown what we can do and we’ll have another year at developing the squad and team, and I think that will do us good.

“We know where we are and where we’re going.”

The future is bright.

“Yeah, I felt I deserved a full go. For the past two years, I hadn’t got the opportunity — for whatever reason — to give myself that chance. If it didn’t work out in Ealing, I’d be happy to let it go but thankfully it has worked out.”

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Ryan Bailey

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