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Munster's Johnston comes through 'dark place' to show promise again

The 20-year-old playmaker was in impressive form on his return for the Ireland U20s.

THEY’VE BEEN EXCITED about 20-year-old Bill Johnston in Munster for quite a while now, but the promising out-half has had to patient.

The late Anthony Foley gave Johnston his first taste of senior action in the province’s 2015 pre-season games, just two months after he had completed his Leaving Cert at Rockwell College.

MunsterÕs Bill Johnston Johnston back in the summer of 2015.

Foley’s positive impression of the Clonmel man was backed up within his squad at that time, with the head coach stating that “the players are raving about him.”

Despite that thrilling start to life in professional rugby, it has been far from all plain sailing for Johnston since. The then 18-year-old suffered a left shoulder injury in September 2015, before dislocating his right shoulder early in 2016 to ensure he missed the Ireland U20s’ Six Nations campaign.

Johnston returned to the Ireland set-up for last summer’s Junior World Championship, impressing as Nigel Carolan’s side beat Wales and New Zealand, but he cruelly dislocated his shoulder again in the latter victory.

Another extended period on the sidelines followed, meaning Johnston missed out on the chance to make a positive impression at the start of Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ rein.

The long slog of rehab had concluded by December 2016, when Johnston returned to action for Munster ‘A’ in the British and Irish Cup, but again he was struck down, this time by an ankle injury.

Only now is Johnston back to full fitness and showing his promise on the pitch. After three games for club side Garryowen in the Ulster Bank League, the playmaker impressed on Friday night at Donnybrook as he started at 10 in the Ireland U20s’ win over France.

“I’m not going to lie, I was in a pretty dark place,” says Johnston of getting through the tough times. “After the second shoulder injury, especially down in Munster with the new coaches, I was really looking forward to getting back.

“I missed the pre-season and wanted to get back and make a statement with the 20s and my club. In my first B&I match, I hurt my ankle and that was a real kick in the teeth.

“It took a lot of hard work and a lot of graft but I’m happy that I put in that work because I think it stands to me now.

Bill Johnston Johnston injured his ankle in a B&I Cup game in December. Source: CameraSport/Andrew Vaughn/INPHO

“If you take that six or seven weeks off and you come back and you’re rusty, you haven’t really done yourself justice. I put the hard work in and I say, ‘If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready’.

“I was working on my kicking, my passing, my tactical work, so when the fitness came back to me, I was ready to go out on the pitch.”

Johnston’s determination shines through immediately in this answer, as does the maturity of the young out-half – which Foley underlined back in 2015.

While he endured those dark moments, Johnston never saw himself as a victim in that period of rehab following injury. Indeed, he saw it as an opportunity and a learning experience.

“I think after the first shoulder surgery, I put on six or seven kg, which kinda brought me up the professional build,” says Johnston, who won the Munster Schools Senior Cup with Rockwell in 2015. “After that, it was maintain that weight and building up that core strength and stability.

“You hear about lads who get inured frequently but it’s all about that prehab and mobility. It might not be about pushing the heaviest weights the whole time. It might be reading your body, saying, ‘I’m a bit sore, I need to look after myself this week.’”

Having got back on the pitch with his Limerick club first, Johnston looked very comfortable on his return for the Ireland U20s, his second year at this level. His passing was excellent, his kicking accurate, his footwork sharp and his communication superb.

“I knew I had to get my feet right after coming back from the shoulder and then the ankle injury,” says Johnston. “I played a few games with Garryowen which really, really helped me get up to match speed.

“I’ve really looked after my body in the last few months. I’ve taken advice from a lot of people. They were kinda innocuous injuries. If you look at it, pretty much every rugby player dislocates their shoulder, everyone picks up that high ankle sprain.

Bill Johnston Johnston in action for Garryowen earlier this month. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“They’re just things that you have to accept and move on and try and look after your body as best you can.”

With Carolan’s side having won their three Six Nations games so far, they are in the title hunt ahead of a trip to Wales in two weekends’ time, trailing England in the overall table.

This U20s’ campaign is the primary focus for Johnston at present, particularly as he will have competition at 10 when Ulster’s Johnny McPhillips – also in his second year at this level – returns from a groin injury.

But back in Munster, there must be excitement at the prospects of Johnston – whose brother David is also in the senior squad – finally getting an opportunity to push through and make his senior debut.

Tyler Bleyendaal and Ian Keatley are the primary options at out-half, with Rory Scannell providing cover, but the fact that Erasmus has been keen to keep Johnston involved throughout his time out injured stresses the fact that there is belief in his ability.

“Obviously with Tyler, Keats and Rory, there is a lot of depth there at the moment and in fairness, they deserve their place on the team,” says Johnston. “I’m yet to prove myself really because of the injuries and my age – I only turned 20 last week.

“Rassie was very supportive, he was keeping an eye on my in training. Himself and Jacques were helping me with a few aspects of my game. I think I learned a lot from them in that time I was injured and I was able to bring that into this environment.

“I wasn’t left out of the group completely. I might not have been on the pitch but I was engaged in training and meetings and that really helped me.”

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Murray Kinsella

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