FRANCE away, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is going to be something of a culture shock for the Scotland Under-20s side this Friday night – but one of their number knows exactly what to expect.
“I’m just going home,” shrugs second-row Ewan Johnson, who has lived across the channel since he was four-years-old, initially learning the game in Brittany where his parents have settled, and more recently travelling the length and breadth of the country playing for the Racing 92 Espoirs (hopefuls) team, as part of the club’s academy programme.
“Some games it’s pretty physical because you get the pros dropping down to get some game time,” he explains, when asked about the standard of rugby he experiences on a week-to-week basis in France. “We’ve had Donnacha Ryan, the big Irish lock, down for a game last year, and Teddy Thomas has played a few games. Then you get some teams who don’t have that many pros, so it varies. Some teams are really good, and some are not so good, but every game is physical.”
Johnson anticipates it will be a similar story this weekend. “How we have previewed the game is that it will be really physical over there and a lot of big boys we will be up against,” he says. “I think it will be a pretty big and noisy crowd because they love their rugby down in the south of France. We know what is coming, so I think we just need to focus on the job in hand and not worry about the French crowd. If everyone does their job properly we should be fine. They are not necessarily fit, if you know what I mean, so we just have to outwork them.”
The 19-year-old, who was born in Cheshire and speaks with a south of England accent, qualifies to play for Scotland through Paul, his Bathgate-born father.
“Both my parents worked for the Met and they retired when they were 30-odd, they were allowed to retire pretty young,” he explains. “My mum [Eleri] used to go on holidays to France when she was young, so they always wanted to move there, and they just thought, why not? I was four at the time, my older brother was five and then my younger brother was actually born in France.
“I haven’t known much different and I love it in France. I grew up in Brittany, so on the west coast, and played all of my rugby there before moving to Racing 92.”
Becoming a senior player
At 6ft 6ins and 18½ stone, Johnson provides some invaluable bulk to Scotland’s engine-room; and having played for the national age-grade side throughout last year’s Six Nations and U20s World Championship, he has a level of rugby experience at both club and international level which can be a huge asset to a team which is relying heavily this season on players who are only in their first year out of school.
With a Welsh mother, an English place of birth and French residency, it was a bit of a toss-up as to which country he would end up representing – but having veered towards the thistle he is now totally committed to the cause.
“I had a friend who played for England so he knew about the Exiles stuff and I realised that it could give me a foot in the door to international rugby,” explains Johnson “So, me, my older brother [Lewis, who currently plays in the back-row for French Federale 1 side Nantes] and my dad did some digging, had a look, and got involved in an Exile camp in Leeds in December 2017.”
“From there, I went into the Under-19s programme around the turn of the year, before getting called into the Under-20s for the Six Nations, and it has just gone from there.
“Last year I took each game like a bonus, because I wasn’t expecting any of it, but this year it’s definitely focusing on myself but also the team. We’re still taking it game-by-game to make sure we develop every step along the way.
“I got involved with Scotland first so even if I was lucky enough to be wanted by other countries I couldn’t go through with it, because Scotland had trust in me with the Under-20s last year and I don’t want to let the country down.”
Johnson spends his regular season billeted with around 35 other rugby hopefuls in the residential wing of Racing 92’s Le Plessis-Robinson training complex in southwest Paris.
He has crossed paths occasionally with Finn Russell, but they won’t be bumping into each other this week. While the senior national team’s stand-off has returned to the French capital to recover from the head-knock which ruled him out of Saturday’s Six Nations clash, Johnson’s focus is firmly on Pau and helping the Under-20s get their season up and running after two frustrating defeats at home to Italy and Ireland.
Thereafter, there is Wales at home and England away, then this year’s U20 World Championship in Argentina will bring the curtain down on his international age-grade career, at which point he will perhaps have to start thinking a bit longer term about his Racing future.
“I think you probably find out at the start of your last year if you have a pretty good chance of breaking into the first team,” concludes Johnson, who ceases to be a teenager at the end of June. “For most boys, that is when you get to about 20, 21 or 22 – and you have to start looking for another club. I have a full season (still to wait) but I am probably going to try and stick it out. It’s pretty full-on, you can’t get away from rugby, but I guess that is what you sign up for.”