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Big game at Thomond Park? Ulster's Bill Johnston is exactly where he wants to be

 

Old stomping ground: Ulster’s Bill Johnston
Old stomping ground: Ulster’s Bill Johnston

By Michael Sadlier

The theory is that Bill Johnston will probably make a beeline for the home changing room when he arrives at Thomond Park.

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Understandable really as the former Munster squad member, who only hooked up with Ulster over the summer, returns to his spiritual home.

Thomond Park. It is a place steeped in the 22-year-old's memory. As he grew up - "Trips to Thomond Park were a big part of my childhood," he said - it was about taking in some great occasions supplied by Ronan O'Gara et al, before Johnston then got to live the dream by following in his older brother David's footsteps and wearing the red shirt.

Though he didn't play there that often, Johnston has the feel of the place, with all its quirks and nuances as well as how the wind tends to throw itself around the Limerick citadel.

"It was always a place you dreamt about playing in and for me now getting to play a game of such magnitude at Thomond Park, well, that's exactly where I want to be," Johnston stated.

He was also at Thomond Park in late October 2016 on the day Munster took to the field again following the sudden death of coach and playing legend Anthony Foley.

"I was high up in the stands but I could feel the electricity. It was obviously very emotional for all of us but that was a special day to be there and to witness.

"I'll never forget the energy that was in the stadium that day," recalled the Tipperary native of the occasion when Glasgow Warriors were swept aside on an irresistible tide of Munster emotion.

It will feel good to be back so soon after switching to Ulster and in a game which his family will not have had to travel too far to see him. The only problem is that he will be wearing the visiting team's shirt which, naturally, prompts the query over whether they will be shouting for Ulster.

"Possibly, I don't know," said the former Ireland U20s player. "They've always wanted the best for me and it's great to have their support.

"Though I actually didn't play all that many games there, just from being in captain's runs and things like that you just know the dimensions of the place and then there is the way the wind blows, no matter what the flags say the wind doesn't do what the flags say.

"And then there is the wet and the rain as it often seems to be down there.

"It's nice going to a place you know pretty well and it's kind of like a bit of a home game in terms of the city won't be that new so it's all just a little advantage for me," added Johnston, who is expected to be benching behind front-line out-half Billy Burns.

"But I've never really played a big game there before so I'm not sure what to really expect in terms of atmosphere," added the player whose brother David plays in England for Ealing Trailfinders.

He has come a long way over the last year.

Twelve months ago, Johnston was getting his first senior start for Munster at the Cheetahs just after mostly featuring for the 'A' team in the Celtic Cup.

With a considerable logjam of talented out-halves ahead of him - with Joey Carbery, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal all being on the books - there was clear blockage rendering Johnston's move north a clear necessity if he wanted to push on and get more game time.

He made the leap and, so far, the outcome has looked fairly favourable, though his senior Ulster debut also happened to be in Bloemfontein when the visitors were handed a bit of a pasting.

"I think maybe this time last year I would have rather run from an issue than go through the fire to solve it," he explained of how he has grown as a person and player since leaving his comfort zone behind. "So I've learned things from the Cheetahs and I definitely learned a lot from my first home start (last week) against Zebre.

"I've made a few mistakes along the way. But I think I've made great strides.

"I see it all as learning opportunities and that's how I want to approach this season."

Dealing with the emotion of being back on home turf could be quite a challenge, never mind whether he manages to walk straight into the visiting changing room without deviating.

"It's just a game, that's about all I can say. There are four or five points up for grabs," he said.

True, but it's really much more than just that.

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