JAMES JOHNSTONE had five years of Sevens heaven, and if Richard Cockerill hadn’t shown up at Edinburgh at the start of last season then he would almost certainly have been over in Dubai this weekend competing for John Dalziel’s team in round one of the 2018-19 HSBC World Sevens Series.
But instead of the sun and glamour of the Persian Gulf, he is off instead to Cork on the south coast of Ireland with a desperately understrength Edinburgh team to undertake the daunting task of facing a Munster outfit who have not been beaten at home in the PRO14 since losing to Leinster on Boxing Day last year.
And the 28-year-old centre wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve done Dubai five or six times, this is a different opportunity and a different level of rugby. I am being challenged much more playing fifteens and I am really enjoying it. I feel like I am getting a lot out of it,” he said.
Dumfries-born Johnstone was a player with a big future as he progressed through the national age-grade sides whilst at Merchiston Castle School. He played his first season of senior rugby at Watsonians before switching to Currie, and fought back from a serious shoulder injury to be capped seven times at Under-20 level during 2010 Six Nations and Junior World Cup.
He had a spell as an Elite Development Player with Glasgow, but shoulder problems continued to hinder his development, before he moved onto the national Sevens set-up in 2012. He signed a full-time deal in 2013, played in Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games and picked up 40 caps on the World Series circuit, which included the team’s historic victory at Twickenham in 2016.
“I was focused on sevens, I was happy being a sevens player and we were doing quite well – I was in a good place, but this opportunity came up out of the blue and I am happy it did,” said Johnstone. “I didn’t think I would get the chance to play 15s after I had those injuries and after playing Sevens for so long. But when Cockers gave me the chance to come into the team last year I jumped at it.
“He just sort of said: ‘There is an opportunity to play here if you want to come and do that?’. It was on a week-by-week basis and I eventually got that opportunity to play, which I wasn’t expecting to happen, to be honest. I was expecting to go back and play Sevens when their season came around again. But I managed to take a couple of those opportunities and I have not looked back since then. I have been involved quite a bit which has been great.
“I am still learning as I go. I have been back playing 15s for a good year and a bit now, but still getting up to speed with it,” he continued.
“Defensively I have learned a lot: how to defend in those channels when there is a lot more traffic about. I am still working on trying to get into the game a bit more in attack – trying to get my hands on the ball a bit more. Defensively I feel like I am reading the game well, doing a good job there, but I still need to be more prominent in games and that is what I’ll be looking to do going forward.”
In the thick of it
With Matt Scott and Mark Bennett, the team’s two international centres, having injury problems this season, Johnstone – who is now on a two-year contract with the club which will run to the summer of 2010 – has had plenty of opportunity to get game time, playing the full 80-minutes in each of the team’s last six matches. And, after last Sunday evening’s loss to the Dragons in Newport, he will be back in the thick of it again this Friday night when it is pretty much a case of the last men standing being handed a jersey.
“There won’t be much time on the pitch to get ready for the Munster game,” said Johnstone. “It’s quite a challenging turnaround for us, getting back late on Sunday night – Monday morning really – after the match, which means after recovery we really only have Wednesday morning proper to prepare and then we fly on Thursday.
“We reviewed the Dragons fame and we did do some good stuff. We weren’t a million miles away from getting the result but it’s obviously consistency of execution and such like that we need to keep working on.”
- Meanwhile, Scotland Sevens coach John Dalziel, has named his squad to compete in the opening round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai, with Mungo Mason – the Scottish-born, New Zealand-raised breakaway forward, who played for Edinburgh in their pre-season friendly against Bath at Meggetland – named as 13th man.
1. Scott Riddell (67)
2. Nyle Godsmark (16)
3. Kyle Steyn (2)
4. Robbie Fergusson (CC) (9)
5. Harvey Elms (7)
6. Glenn Bryce (16)
7. Jamie Farndale (CC) (31)
8. Jo Nayacavou (36)
9. Sam Pecqueur (1)
10. Gavin Lowe (24)
11. Max McFarland (10)
12. Ross McCann (2)
13. Mungo Mason (0)
Scotland 7s Fixtures in Dubai (Kick-offs UK Time)
Friday 30 November
5.44am Scotland 7s v Kenya 7s
9.06am Scotland 7s v Fiji 7s
2.44pm Scotland 7s v France 7s
Saturday 1 December