Sunday 21 April 2019

Tipp No 10 still honing his talents

The Big Interview: Bill Johnston

Bill Johnston in pensive mood at Munster training. Photo: Sportsfile
Bill Johnston in pensive mood at Munster training. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

In 2019, San Francisco 49ers star Robbie Gould will earn a base salary of $5,018,000.

There were wild reports years ago that Ronan O'Gara was on his way to the Miami Dolphins, but as of yet no Irish rugby player has made the switch to American football.

And current Munster out-half Bill Johnston, who has 15 years on the highly-sought after NFL place-kicker Gould, says he wouldn't rule out one day trying his luck with the smaller egg-shaped ball if his rugby career doesn't hit the heights he dreams of.

"We had an American football out a week or two ago and we were giving it welly trying to spiral it and kick it off the ground," says Johnston.

"It's a different discipline definitely, the fact that the ball isn't sitting on a tee for you. Maybe it looks easy because they are all straightforward kicks but you definitely have less time. It is probably a more difficult skill to master.

"But I would give it a shot and would love to try it. I am that kind of person. I love taking on something different. To be paid to just kick a ball would be nice. I wouldn't have to get tackled by forwards either so it would be easier on the body."

For now the 21-year-old is completely focused on his job at Munster's High Performance Centre in UL.

Johnston made his first PRO14 start for his province this season when he lined out at No 10 opposite Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

It was an eye-opening experience playing in the depths of the South African summer on November 4.

Altitude

Johnston began his first game alongside Liam Coombes and Fineen Wycherley, and kicked two penalties and two conversions.

"It was very warm. It was their summer, and it was the altitude which was the tough bit," recalls Johnston.

"We got there and we had our two hardest training sessions all year. We had to get used to the altitude. So the first two days they ran the hell out of us.

"We needed to get used to the air. It was worth it. It was a tough week with the travel and everything, but it was an amazing experience.

"You have to be aware of how far you can kick the ball in those conditions. That can be a challenge as well. If you are trying to kick corners you are trying to not put them out on the full.

"I remember that game in particular I had Alby Mathewson inside me and Tyler Bleyendaal outside me and they really helped me through the whole game.

"They did a lot of the leadership kind of thing, I just went out and played my own game. I focused on my kicking, passing and running. I really enjoyed the game."

Johnston has now played ten times for Munster, and he constantly looks at new ways to improve his game, as he tries to stave off competition from some seasoned campaigners.

JJ Hanrahan and Bleyendaal have the experience while Ireland international Joey Carbery has added real quality since his arrival from Leinster.

"Joey has reached a super level. He has been exceptional this year, in fairness to him," says Johnston.

"He played really well for us in the Champions Cup in particular. For Ireland, he has made impacts every time he has played. He has gone to that level now that people knew he could get to. I'm sure he wants to push on even more.

"The older lads there they have that kind of experience. They have those years behind them and that knowledge. I know I have those deficits in certain areas which I can't do anything about.

"But I love having that chip on my shoulder that they might have the experience or the game-time behind them, but it's that challenge of me looking to outwork and outperform him which keeps me on my toes.

"It is making us all better players. That is really good for Munster that we are all so eager to play well when we get that opportunity, because of the competition.

"I am getting a lot out of the competition for the place.

"When you get a chance you really have to take it. It definitely puts the pressure on and you have to learn fast. You have to outwork them and perform when you do get the chance.

"We are all getting something out of it. It's a strong position for the club to have so many good players."

The Clonmel native, and former Rockwell College student, believes that being able to kick off his left boot will add an extra dynamic to his game.

Johnston fractured his fibula in his left leg playing for Munster 'A' against Ealing in 2017, and that denied him an opportunity to represent his country in the World Rugby U-20 Championships that year.

But he has bounced back from that major upset, along with some shoulder setbacks, and now is focused on constantly improving his own skill-set.

"I dislocated it and broke that leg a year or two ago. I lost the proprioception with it. That's obviously not as strong as my right," he says.

"I just thought it's another thing I have to develop and be comfortable dropping it with both feet. I started with a soccer ball up against the wall, soloing it to myself in the mornings. I just built it up and it's something I work on every week.

"I have tried it once or twice in training and it has come off sometimes and got blocked down sometimes. But you have to be willing to take those risks. You have to be willing to expand your game. It's just mainly out of hand, that ability to kick a chip over the top or a grubber, or a cross-field kick.

"Teams try and put a lot of pressure on the kicker. If they are aware that you can kick off both feet, it becomes that bit harder for them to target you. If there is a kicking channel you want to access it makes it that bit easier for you too.

"It's just about evaluating my whole game, which I am doing the whole time. I felt it was a bit of weakness.

"I made good progress so hopefully I get to do it in a game once or twice."

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