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Johnston is the latest provincial rival to seal Ulster switch

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New face: Bill Johnston is Ulster’s fifth signing of the close season
New face: Bill Johnston is Ulster’s fifth signing of the close season
Michael Lowry
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster have added another former provincial rival to their squad for next season, this time swooping to sign Munster's young out-half Bill Johnston.

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The Clonmel native becomes the fifth signing made by the northern province ahead of 2019/20, joining Jack McGrath, Sam Carter, Gareth Milasinovich and Matt Faddes in Belfast, although the latter has yet to be officially confirmed by Ulster having been revealed by the Belfast Telegraph earlier this year.

Johnston is familiar to fans at Kingspan Stadium - he secured a losing bonus point for the Munster with a late penalty when they visited in December - and has long been viewed as an out-half of some promise.

He will be expected to put pressure on incumbent ten Billy Burns and his back-up Johnny McPhillips, who is believed to have another year under contract having impressed during the first half of 2018 but been used only sparingly in this campaign.

Johnston signed a two-year extension at Thomond Park last season but it would appear the switch is further evidence of the fluidity of movement between the provinces, even though Munster are understood to have had to fend off recent advances from Leinster for promising scrum-half Craig Casey.

Before this switch, Ulster alone were to have 10 players in their senior squad with ties to other provinces next season and more still in the Academy set-up.

Johnston was an Under-20s team-mate of Jacob Stockdale, Adam McBurney and Greg Jones, as well as McPhillips who replaced him during the famous win over New Zealand at the 2016 Junior World Championships and held onto the ten jersey through the rest of the side's run to that year's final.

It was a shoulder dislocation that saw Johnston depart, having previously underwent shoulder reconstruction surgery. The 22-year-old said back in February, though, that he'd been injury free for virtually two seasons, despite still just having 12 senior outings to his name after being handed his debut against Zebre by the late Anthony Foley in 2017.

"I had a few injuries early on but I've had a clean bill of health for nearly two seasons now," he told the Cork-based Irish Examiner.

"It's great to be playing and training and developing every week. When you're not on the pitch actively, you don't get the same exposure, but at the moment I'm on the curve that I want to be on.

"I find myself here now in the No.10 jersey, which is brilliant because it wouldn't be the same if it was given to you easily. Every day, every week, you have to be on top of your game because if you're not, you find yourself sliding down the pecking order. That keeps the pressure on you and something you definitely need if you want to press on."

Of late, he has found his path to the out-half jersey at Thomond Park blocked by a succession of signings.

Joey Carbery, who joined from Leinster having himself been chased by Ulster, is the starter when fit, though JJ Hanrahan was brought back from Northampton, while now Irish-qualified Tyler Blyendaal seems to have finally put his own long injury nightmare behind him.

That trio made extensive game-time unlikely, especially after Hanrahan was rightly praised by team-mates last week for kicking a lengthy penalty to beat Benetton in the quarter-finals.

Munster dominated the first-half but were trailing late on and staring down the barrel of an upset.

It marked part of a dramatic comeback not just for Munster but Hanrahan himself who hasn't always seemed to be trusted, but has proven himself a valuable figure this season.

It's been something of a strange week for Munster - who face Leinster in the RDS next weekend - having also lost popular assistant coaches Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery, but Johnston admitted earlier this season that he had relished the few opportunities handed to him by Johann van Graan, especially that derby day out at the Kingspan.

"I knew my chances would be limited, so representing the A team in the Celtic Cup became my aim," he said. "I kind of took a leadership role there and that was great for my confidence, that I had to lead my teammates and be a leader for that team. That helped my experience and the exposure helped me to move on again.

"Then I got a few opportunities in the league that I was happy with, like against Ulster. Getting the penalty in a hostile environment up in the Kingspan for a losing bonus point was big for me.

"I went into that game trying to be as relaxed as I could be and it was an experience I really enjoyed. It's not every day that a 21-year-old gets the chance to play in front of that many people. That kick at the end was one that kickers pride themselves on when there's something at stake. I love those moments."

Represented by Niall Woods' Navy Blue agency - just like Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney, who both have found the game-time they sought after similar moves north - of interest will be what the move means for Michael Lowry.

Like Johnston, the former RBAI man was earmarked for success ever since earning rave reviews at school level and, after injuries scuppered his own Under-20s chances, he has been a big figure for Ulster this season.

While he has almost exclusively played in the 15 jersey at this level, both he and Johnston will see their future at 10.

Burns, himself still just 24-years-old, has featured in 23 of the side's 29 games so far this year, while McPhillips and Pete Nelson have also featured at out-half.

With McFarland having used 10 Academy players in his first season at the helm, Johnston evidently likes his chances.

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