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Ulster opportunity arrived for a reason, says Bill Johnston as fly-half savours fresh start

 

New opportunity: Bill Johnston is eager to impress after joining Ulster from Munster
New opportunity: Bill Johnston is eager to impress after joining Ulster from Munster
Adam McBurney
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

At some point in most players' careers, in any sport, there comes a moment when they have to stick or twist. For Bill Johnston, that came a lot sooner than he would have hoped.

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He offered so much promise as a youngster coming through the age grades with Munster, the Tipperary native representing Ireland's Under-20s for two years and widely seen as the next great local fly-half.

Life is rarely fair though. When everything seemed to be going in his favour, suddenly the cruel hands of fate dealt him several fitness blows - two shoulder injuries and a fractured fibula in the space of two seasons.

It curtailed what could have been an exceptional under-age career - ruling him out of the majority of that run to the final of the 2016 World Junior Championship - and also affected his senior aspirations. In a results-based industry, Johnston found himself slipping down the pecking order in Munster too.

While he was out, in came Tyler Bleyendaal from South Africa, followed by the return of JJ Hanrahan from Northampton, and then the kicker was the arrival of Ireland international Joey Carbery from Leinster last year.

By the end of last season, Johnston was fourth on the depth chart and marooned on just 12 caps for his home province. Even worse, he was sitting at home watching players on TV he'd played alongside in the Under-20s making European appearances for their provinces.

"Those weeks when you weren't involved in a Champions Cup game, team sheets would come out on Thursday and Friday and you'd see the names of guys you have played against. It gets put in black and white very quickly in your head that if these guys can do it, I want to be able to do it," said Johnston.

"You want to play in those games and make a career for yourself. You do feel it is not entirely in your own hands when you do not get the chance on the field, but you can't make excuses.

"It is something you can take control of yourself." Taking control meant looking elsewhere for game time, and when Ulster heard that the 22-year-old was on the market, they weren't slow to show their interest in bringing him north to provide competition for Billy Burns and Michael Lowry.

Everything up to this point had been easy for Johnston: join the Munster Academy, impress in the All-Ireland League and then progress into the senior squad.

Then there was a potentially career-defining decision to make.

"It was tough as it was my childhood club. It's cliched, but I went to all the games and (Ronan) O'Gara and (Peter) Stringer were my heroes growing up, and you always want to fulfil that kind of dream," admitted Johnston. "I did to a degree. I represented the senior team a few times which was such an honour for me, my family, my friends, my club, my school to do that.

"But it got to a stage that there were a lot of talented, experienced guys in the same position and it came to a point to stay on this road or not. An opportunity came up and one like this does not fall in your lap for no reason."

So he took the plunge and swapped Munster red for Ulster white, and already he feels like he's made the right call.

He's linked up with former Under-20s team-mates Adam McBurney, Greg Jones, Johnny Stewart, Marcus Rea and Rob Lyttle, who have been showing him around and helping him settle in, while on the pitch he enthuses about the standards that are being driven among the young trio of himself, Burns and Lowry for the fly-half jersey.

The key thing for Johnston is it's a fresh start.

"You see these things in movies or on TV or you hear of other people talking about a fresh start. No one really knows you, you do not have a label put on you by others in a particular environment," he said.

"To be able to go somewhere where no one knows you apart from what you do on a daily basis, you can be who you want to be and behave as you want to behave. Just pick up on any traits you want to change yourself."

He will need to adapt, but Ulster will be excited by what they have in the ex-Ireland Schools captain.

If they can find the correct combination to unlock Johnston's potential then they surely have a future Ireland international on their hands, and even if they don't then he's a handy player to have around.

With their No.10 stocks consisting of players all 25-years-old or younger too, this could be a long-lasting triumvirate that they don't have to worry about for quite some time.

For Johnston, he's already got the blueprint to success, provided by the likes of Eric O'Sullivan, Alan O'Connor, Nick Timoney and John Cooney - if you buy into your new province, the rewards are there for you.

"I have really enjoyed it so far here, I have been developing loads and definitely in terms of my skills, the change of environment has been great and given me a new lease of life if you like," added Johnston.

"It has helped me both personally and on the rugby side."

So far, so good then.

• Deloitte have extended their sponsorship of the Ulster Women's team for another two years ahead of this year's Interprovincial Series, which starts this weekend.

The sponsorship deal will also see Deloitte become named sponsors for all of Ulster's domestic women's competitions.

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