Ewan Johnson: made in France but fiercely Scottish

Former Under-20s second-row ready to seize his chance during summer tour of the Americas

Ewan Johnson carries the ball for Scotland Under-20s in their famous win over England at Myreside back in 2018. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Ewan Johnson carries the ball for Scotland Under-20s in their famous win over England at Myreside back in 2018. Image: ©Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

EWAN JOHNSON – all 6ft 8ins and 19 stone of him – is a genial big fella. He certainly looks the part physically, and he talks with an easy self-confidence that you might expect from a player who has come through the notoriously tough French system to earn his first senior international call-up this summer as part of Gregor Townsend’s Scotland squad which flew out to the Americas yesterday at the start of a four-match tour which will take in games against Canada, USA, Chile and Uruguay over the next four weekends.

“Being at Racing 92 was crazy,” recalls the now 25-year-old, who spent three seasons in the French capital between 2017 and 2020. “I’d come from the fifth division under-18s [in France] to go into their academy and it was bananas. The facilities are next level. In the first week I was there, I had lunch beside Dan Carter, kind of by accident. It was the last seat available, so I sat there and I had this massive feeling of: ‘What am I doing here?’

“But if I had stayed [at Racing] I would have just been making up the numbers and wouldn’t have got a lot of gametime as obviously it’s one of the best clubs in the world and they’ve got a lot of big players. So, then I dropped a division and went to Vannes for the next three seasons. Personally, that was the best decision I could have made. I played quite a few games there and we got to two [play-off] semi-finals when I was there. We lost to Biarritz in my first year and then we lost in my last year to Oyonnax.”


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His club may have missed out on promotion, but somewhat ironically Johnson was signed by Oyannax meaning that he played last season in the French Top 14 – albeit at the bottom end of the table leading to relegation at the end of the campaign.

“Vannes have been promoted so it’s a bit of a sticky one,” he half-chuckles. “But the standard of rugby in France is crazy high so it’s not like it [Pro D2] a bad division. We’ve just got to make the most of it and hope that we get promoted again. I’ve got another year on my contract there but obviously you never know what can happen.”

With a Welsh mother (Eleri), an English place of birth (Cheshire) and French residency, it might have been a toss-up as to which country he would end up representing when the young Johnson started showing the potential to play national age-grade level – but his Bathgate-born father (Paul) won the day.

“My parents were police officers and got the chance to retire quite early, so it was either my dad comes back up to Scotland or my mum wanted to go to France – you know the story, my mum gets the last word, obviously – and we’ve been there for 20 years now,” explains Johnson, who grew up in Brittany and came through the Plouzané club.

“I did all my schooling over there so I’m pretty much as much French as Scottish. Rory Sutherland did a year over there [playing for Oyannax] recently and when I see boys like that trying to speak French I realise I’m quite lucky.

“But for me, it’s always been about Scottish rugby, because my old man is the one who always drove the rugby into us. He’s rugby-mad, so I didn’t have a choice, to be honest.

“He played rugby, and if you listen to him he should be here instead of me … I don’t know how much that’s worth!

“I’ve got an older brother Lewis, who is obviously a bit shorter – try and get that in [that article] if you can – he plays back row/second row. And I’ve got a little brother, Finlay, he’s 20 now, and I think he’s going to be quite tall as well. Hopefully he gets taller than the older brother.

“They both play fourth division now, but obviously the standard of rugby in France is crazy. They’re just creeping into that professional world, so they’re both really enjoying their rugby as well.”

 

 

Johnson’s first formal contact with Scottish Rugby was an Exile camp in Leeds in December 2017, and within a few months he was playing the first of his two Six Nations campaigns for the Under-20s team. He also played in two Junior World Championship, appearing in 17 out of a possible 20 games for the age-grade side during that period.

The was only two wins (that remarkable victory over England at Myreside in 2018 and over Wales at Meggetland in 2019), but made some useful connections who he will spend the next month with, including Rory Darge, Kyle Rowe, Stafford McDowall, Murphy Walker, Ewan Ashman, Ross Thompson and fellow senior team newbie Robbie Smith.

“There are quite a few of the boys who played 20s that are still kicking about, so with social media it’s quite easy to stay in contact with a little message now and again,” he says.

And there was absolutely no problem persuading his club that disappearing off on tour this summer was a good idea.

“At the start of the season, I spoke to the coaches at Oyonnax and said it was a goal to get Test match rugby, whether this year or next year,” he explains. “I just wanted them to know that it was something I wanted to do. Luckily enough it came this season.”

“We’ve got [head coach] Joe El-Abd – who is half-English, half-Egyptian if I’m not mistaken – and he just wants the boys to play at the best level possible.

“So, we’ve got a few boys [on international duty this summer]. The No 9 has gone off to play for Georgia, the No 8 is going to Italy, so he’s massively happy and proud.

“He’s just said to me try and learn as much as you can and bring it back to the club, bring that energy and enthusiasm back into everyday sessions.”

 

 

Grant Gilchrist and Richie Gray are now well into the twilight of their careers and Jonny Gray’s injury issues during the last year or so mean that he has some work to do before he can be viewed again as the prolific force he was during the first decade of his career.

So, Johnson along with fellow tourists Max Williamson and Alex Craig – who have both excelled at club level this season – will all fancy using this trip to elbow their way into the Autumn Test series frame, while Scott Cummings and Glen Young will provide experience in the engine-room in the Americas.

“It’s just to get as much out of it as possible, whether that’s on the rugby field or extras at the end or picking people’s brains at dinner,” replies Johnson, when asked about his hopes for the tour.

“Every young player has the same goal and that’s to play at the highest level possible. And this is it. It’s been a lifelong dream for me, my dad and my two brothers … so hopefully I can get across the line to get that first cap.”


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About David Barnes 4026 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

4 Comments

  1. I’m sure I remember his story being talked about when he played U 20′ s, always wondered what happened to him.
    Playing 3 seasons in Pro2 and a year against the big boys in the T14 at Oyonnax means he will be more than physically ready for this summer tour.
    Hope Toonie gives him a decent amount of playing time.

  2. Had never heard of Johnston before now and certainly a gamble even by Toony Tombola standards. I hope the lad can step up and does well on tour. A tough assignment, for we have no shortage of excellent locks. Craig is in the form of his life, while both Cummings and Williamson progressing at a rate of knots. And not forgetting Cammy Henderson at Leicester, so desperately unlucky with injury this year or he’d be on the plane. If only we could produce more test-standard tight heads to take the pressure off Zander – and his absence on this trip will make it very interesting to see whether one of the others can establish themselves as his regular deputy.

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    • Callum Hunter Hill has just moved to Northampton. I haven’t seen him play but heard he’s been bubbling along nicely for a while and potentially could be another option as Richie Gray and Grant Gilchrist move out of the picture.

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  3. Had never heard of Johnston before now and certainly a gamble even by Toony Tombola standards. I hope the lad can step up and does well on tour. A tough assignment, for we have no shortage of excellent locks. Craig is in the form of his life, while both Cummings and Williamson progressing at a rate of knots. And not forgetting Cammy Henderson at Leicester, so desperately unlucky with injury this year or he’d be on the plane. If only we could produce more test-standard tight heads to take the pressure off Zander – and his absence on this trip will make it very interesting to see whether one of the others can establish themselves as his regular deputy.

    3
    1

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