The changes that gave Johnson's career a real sting

Tue, 07 Feb 2017 13:16

IN THE PREMIERSHIP SPOTLIGHT: Springbok Ashley Johnson explains to Jan de Koning why he left South Africa less than a year after making his Test debut and the benefits reaped of that decision.

Ashley Francois Johnson may be 30 already, but two recent changes have ensured he can extend his playing career for a number of years.

The first was when - in 2012, after having played three Tests for the Boks the year before - he moved to Wasps in the English Premiership.

And more recently he converted from loose forward to hooker at the current Premiership leaders.

Johnson described his five-year stay in England as "amazing" and added that he has been going from strength to strength at Wasps.

"I am enjoying my rugby and have become a better player since I moved here," he told rugby365 in an exclusive interview from London.

"My career was stagnating," he said of the decision to move to England in 2012 - after having featured in Tests against Australia (in Sydney) and New Zealand (Wellington and Port Elizabeth), but then failed to make the squad that went to the World Cup that year.

"I have just become a much better individual and player since the move."

However, the more significant move has been the decision to convert to hooker.

"A couple of years back [Wasps Director of Rugby] Dai [Young] and I decided to go that route," Johnson said, adding: "We wanted to see if I can play hooker and still be versatile."

Playing in the front row is not entirely foreign to the Johnson family.

His father Archie Johnson played prop for the Western Province League and the South African Federation (SA Proteas) team in the 1980s. Ashley followed in his father's footsteps and started out in the front row at school level, before moving to the back row.

Johnson made the move back into the front row for the 2015/16 season to boost Wasps' options at hooker and made the transition look seamless.

He was the only player that featured in all of Wasps' games last season and scored five tries.

However, he said that initially, it was a slow process.

"There were a few games where I was really struggling with my line-outs," he told rugby365, adding: "I have become more consistent and it shows in my performances at hooker.

"I also still have the versatility. If there is a back row injury I can still fill in that role.

"I feel I can add value to the team and add another dimension to my own game.

"My thought process was that if I changed to hooker I can lengthen my career. There are loads of back row forwards coming through [at Wasps]. They have guys like Nathan Hughes, James Haskell and Thomas Young - all three of them have been called up for international duty."

While Johnson obviously had to work on his line-out skills, he felt the rest of his game was naturally suited to the front row.

"I am naturally big and bulky, so from a scrummaging view, it came naturally. I do like the confrontational part of it [scrumming].

"The most challenging part was probably the line-outs. As a hooker, you have so much responsibility. In terms of the set pieces, you must also keep the scrum together.

"However, [Wasps forwards coach] Andy Titterrell has been amazing in helping me. Then there were guys like [Italian hooker] Carlo Festuccia and also Tommy Taylor, who were helping and guiding me.

"From a playing perspective, at loose forward you have a bit more freedom. However, I work hard to make a contribution, however, I can - be that on defence or carrying the ball, scrummaging or the line-outs."

Johnson does not see himself returning to South Africa soon, to perhaps pursue his Bok dream.

"Nobody can predict the future," he said, adding: "I am still here fort another couple of years.

"I am happy and my family has settled in well. When you are happy at a place it is difficult to leave that place."

He said he hopes to be part of something special at Wasps - a club based in Coventry, a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England.

"We are at the top of the Premiership at the moment and we have qualified for the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup [where they will play Leinster in Dublin on April 1]," he said.

"Somewhere if the future I may return to South Africa, but for now I want to contribute to Wasps."

Johnson, born in Wynberg, was scouted and received a bursary to continue his schooling at Paarl Gymnasium. He eventually captained the Paarl Gim first team and the Western Province schools team.

In 2006 Johnson joined the Free State Cheetahs. Between 2008 and 2009 he was loaned to the Griffons for short stints. It was also during this time that Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské experimented by playing him at hooker, but due to injury problems in the loose forwards Johnson was recalled and had his first true chance to shine at No.8 - where he excelled.

This earned him his first call-up for the Springboks, on their year-end tour to the United Kingdom. He played in two midweek tour matches, but was not capped until 2011.

By Jan de Koning

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