DAVID BARNES in TOKYO
FOUR years ago, Sam Johnson sat alone in a flat in Glasgow watching Australia deprive Scotland of a World Cup semi-final spot with a controversial late penalty, and he admits that his emotional response at that time was not what you would hope for from a player destined to wear the thistle.
“I am a different person to the one I was four years ago,” he says, with a knowing smile. “I was just this kid who had come from Australia, so I was cheering for Australia. I did not know any better. I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know anybody [in Scotland] back then!”
In fairness to Johnson, he could not possibly have anticipated the rugby journey he was about to embark on during those early days in Glasgow, when he was still a recent rugby league convert trying to adapt to a new sport in a new hemisphere. He was a kid from the outback with bags of potential but not an awful lot of life-experience, managing five starts and five appearances off the bench in his first season with the Warriors, whilst barely saying a word.
His running and passing game made an instant good impression, and when his defence and self-confidence started to stride forward it became apparent that there might be more than this Aussie import than just a decent club player. By the time he had served the three-year residency requirement to play for Scotland he was firmly established as a key man in a highly competitive Warriors midfield.
“It just took me a bit of time to adjust,” he reflects of those early days in his adoptive country. “Like anybody does at 21 or 22, it takes a while – but because Glasgow had such a good management team, they dis a really good job of turning around a guy who had just played a bit of muck-around footie into being ready to play on the big stage.
“You grow up a bit don’t you,” he adds. “You realise it is a professional sport and something you don’t just muck around with and play at the weekend. The biggest thing is the professionalism.”
Johnson’s international debut was postponed twice, with a knee injury ruling him out of last summer’s tour of the Americas, and a concussion kiboshing the Autumn Test schedule. He eventually got his chance during the last Six Nations, and although Scotland stuttered through the tournament, with Johnson being dropped for the Wales game, he bounced back in sensational style to take a starring role in Scotland’s miraculous Twickenham comeback. Famously, he scored the try which briefly put the boys in blue ahead in that match when he split the English defence wide open with a devastating angle and then brushed off four English tackles on his 40 yard rampage to the line.
He may only have six caps to his name, but Johnson is now firmly established as a front-line player in the Scotland squad, although he insists that his starting spot is not nailed down for Sunday’s World Cup opener against Ireland given the competition he is up against.
“Duncan Taylor is easy to talk to on and off the field, he is a laidback type of guy – being a bit more mature and having been around the game for a while he is a calming influence,” he reasons. “In saying that, I am rooming with Chris Harris who could potentially be playing at 13 and he has been really good over the summer; and then there is Peter Horne who I go to a lot for advice and to talk through different scenarios of what to do. We will see what Gregor and his coaching team come up with at the weekend.”
The Scotland team will be announced tomorrow [Friday] at 6.30pm local time – 10.30am GMT.
Ireland bring power and flair
Ireland also have options in midfield. Robbie Henshaw might be missing with a hamstring complaint, but Johnson reckons his two potential replacements – Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell – are more than worthy replacements.
“They are two very different players,” he says. “Ringrose uses his agility around the pitch to break the tackles whereas Farrell is probably more of a direct runner. They are both really good operators in their own right.
“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I probably prefer the bigger player running more directly. We will wait and see what Ireland choose.”
Ireland are currently the world’s number one ranked team and have come out on top in six of the last seven outings against Scotland. Johnson played in the last match between the two sides – a 13-22 defeat at Murrayfield – so has a rough idea of what is coming.
“We’re expecting a hugely physical encounter – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the flair out wide to break you on the edges,” he says.
“But we’re in a different country now so I think that levels out the playing field. We’ll see what the conditions are like this weekend, I think the forecast is for rain. It will be one of those ones when whoever rocks up the best and is ready to play might come out on top.
“A lot of their work comes off Conor Murray,with Johnny Sexton orchestrating from in behind. I think they’re kicking game is going to be a huge strength for them, especially if the weather is going to be wet. So, we’ve just got to put as much pressure on their half-back pairing as we can.
“We’ll deal with the threats that are in front of us and have a crack.”