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Johnson hoping hair-raising display will show Wasps are a cut above Leinster


Ashley Johnson

Ashley Johnson

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Ashley Johnson

Devin Toner hammered the point home after Leinster blitzed Castres; if they boss the breakdown, they play. If they don't, well, they don't. Simple as.

This week's battle between a sextet of back-rowers will be decisive; true, game-changers abound elsewhere, from the Wasps' wing speedsters to the delicate hands of Ian Madigan or the dancing feet of Luke Fitzgerald.

But the back-row will be key; Wasps' trio has buzzed with intent all year; Nathan Hughes, the barnstorming Fijian-born eight has made the most metres (258), clean breaks (5) and defenders beaten (16) of the slated starting sextet.

He also has the most offloads (8); at openside James Haskell, the reborn former England star, made more tackles against Harlequins (28) than any other player has managed in any Champions Cup game this term.

And then there's the six, former Springbok international, Ashley Johnson, who has won more turnovers than anyone else who will take to the field in Coventry this Saturday lunchtime.

You won't miss Johnson, who sported a mop of dreadlocked hair in the October RDS fixture not seen since Bob Marley was belting out the tunes in Dalymount Park back in the day.

In the opening round fixture, were it not for Jamie Heaslip's stunning display - 23 carries and 14 tackles - Leinster would have lost; had Haskell been fit enough to join his two colleagues in Wasps back-row, that Sunday could have been hair-raising in more ways than one.

Johnson is easy to spot; much, much harder to track down.

"It's like a target on your back," smiles the 28-year-old. "It certainly gives you the motivation to perform and not make any mistakes!

"Thankfully nobody's ever pulled my hair, even if they accidentally get caught in my hair, they apologise. Nobody has ever tried to do it deliberately. But sometimes I stand out for the referee. And they don't miss me in video reviews if I do something wrong…"

He tried to mow the mop before but his form dipped; lesson learned; the barnet remains.

Rugby bores will tell you that this is a wholly unbalanced back-row that shouldn't work; yet it does.

"I remember when the coach put us together, it seemed like the most unlikely trio," he says. "We're not your typical back-rowers in terms of the six isn't how the six may look, same with the seven and eight.

"We don't have all the individual strengths for those particular positions but somehow our play really contemplates the other guys around us. It's worked really well until now.

"We push each other and feed off each other's strengths. I just love playing with the other two guys. It's not about the numbers on the jerseys. We know by instinct what the other guys are going to do.

"If you have a job to do, you do it and move on to the next one. The whole team is like that, when someone gets the chance to carry, they carry. If there's a tackle to be made, we make it."

Despite losing in the RDS, their first Champions Cup appearance in five years fuelled them with hope and a bonus point; now they can become the first side to lose two October pool games and still qualify.

"We pushed them to the limit and we were actually disappointed not to win because few teams turn them over on their own ground," he recalls. "But we took a lot of heart from it.

"We got a losing bonus point and it gave us confidence to know that we can compete with the best in Europe. We have a lot of confidence from that game but we know Leinster have done it year in, year out.

"They've been here before and they will know what to do to. We have to put our heads in where it hurts."

Few will miss his.

Irish Independent