SOMETIMES being in the right place at the right time is just as important off the field as on. It is a happy knack from which James Johnstone has certainly benefited over the past year, with the centre’s ability to make the most of an unforeseen opportunity having helped him become an increasingly important member of Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh squad.
At the start of last season Johnstone, now 28, was a member of the Scotland Sevens programme. A very successful one, granted, having been part of the team that won the London Sevens in 2016, but nonetheless a player whose chances of graduating to a bigger stage seemed to have passed him by. Then Cockerill, exercising his right to call on the services of the sevens squad, decided to let him show what he could do at 15s. Not long afterwards, Johnstone signed a two-year contract.
One of the harsh realities of modern sport is that strokes of luck do not come in isolation, but often as a consequence of someone else’s misfortune, and the travails of Robbie Fruean and Mark Bennett have played a part in Johnstone’s rise. Fruean was only able to play a handful of games for Edinburgh last season before a long-term heart problem forced him to retire, while Bennett, a new signing in the summer of 2017, did not make his debut until the start of this year. Now that Bennett has again been sidelined and faces five or six months out of action, Johnstone will be given the chance to develop a midfield partnership with Matt Scott and once more claim a place in Cockerill’s starting 15.
“He’s a great player and has had a bit of bad luck with injuries in recent years,” Johnstone said earlier this week when asked about Bennett. “I’m really gutted for him as he was starting to come into his own again. Really disappointed that happened. If the opportunity arises for me then great, but on a personal note for him it’s obviously devastating.”
All being well, Bennett will be back in contention for a start around February or March, and, with Chris Dean also competing for the No 13 jersey, Johnstone is well aware that he cannot merely expect to have his place in the starting line-up rubber-stamped every week. So far at least, however, he has fully vindicated Cockerill’s decision this time last year to take a punt on him.
“He sort of just said there was going to be an opportunity here,” Johnstone recalled. “And he wanted to see me play and what I can do and take it step by step from there. It wasn’t ‘You’re in for the season’, it was ‘Take it short term and see how you get on’.
“I didn’t expect the season to pan out the way it did. I was enjoying the sevens at the time and wasn’t really thinking about 15s as I hadn’t had any opportunities. When Cockers gave me the chance it was a surprise.
“I thought I’d be back with the sevens come November, December time, but the opportunity arose and I managed to take a few in the games I played. I was delighted to get a few games under my belt and show that I could play 15s at this level.
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to play when I got my first opportunity, which was Leinster away last year. It was a surprise when he named that team. I managed to play fairly well and that confirmed to him I could play at that level.”
It is Leinster away again this weekend, and after beating Connacht at home last Friday, Edinburgh are in a good place, Johnstone believes, as they prepare for the trip to play the champions in Dublin. “I think the confidence levels were always pretty positive even after we got those narrow losses, but it was important to get that win at the weekend. The vibe’s still good, still positive. It certainly helps to have a bit of momentum coming into this week.”