Getting physical

Ashley Johnson loves the way rugby is played in England, writes PAUL MORGAN.

If you were looking for the identikit forward to flourish in the English Premiership, he would be physical, love a collision, be dynamic carrying the ball and devastating around the tackle area. Once you put all those qualities into the computer, you would probably arrive at Wynberg-born back-rower Ashley Johnson.

The holder of three Springbok caps, Johnson has been a big hit, in more ways than one, since arriving at London Wasps in 2012.

‘I think the league suits me,’ says Johnson, whose style quickly ensured he became something of a fans’ favourite at Adams Park. ‘I enjoy the physical side of the game, the collisions, and there are plenty of those in English club rugby. I enjoy the type of game that is played in England and I hope people feel it suits my style.’

Johnson is certainly hard to miss in English rugby, his distinctive hairstyle making sure he stands out in a rugby crowd. The style has become something of a trademark for the former Cheetah and he even suggested that without it he might not be as effective around the field.

‘I’ve had my hair like this for years,’ he says. ‘I had it cut once and started to play badly, so I let it grow straight back again.’

While you can’t fail to notice Johnson on the pitch, he has adapted to play across the back row at London Wasps and doesn’t seem to mind which number he has on his back any more.

‘I am just delighted to play, to perform the best role for the team, so I don’t mind in which position,’ he says. ‘You don’t see many fetchers in English rugby like you might in South Africa and across the back row many of the guys will pick up similar jobs. I hope people see me as a player who can fit in and perform the role that’s best for the team.

‘I also have some good players around me and I’m learning all the time. This season I’ve been playing with James Haskell, a guy who has played Test rugby, Super Rugby and even had a spell in Japan, so I’m enjoying learning a few things from him.’

‘I enjoy the physical side of the game, the collisions, and there are plenty of those in English club rugby'

While Johnson has fitted perfectly into the Premiership, he had to make one big adjustment on arriving in England.

‘The weather took some getting used to,’ he admits, ‘but now it’s fine – you learn to adapt pretty quickly. I’ve been at the club for a year and a half so it doesn’t faze me any more.

‘Of course, it is a bit tougher having to train in the cold and wet but adapting to that is part of making the change from Super Rugby.’

But adapt Johnson certainly has and he is one of the first names on Wasps’ team sheet this season, playing in 15 of their first 16 Premiership matches, taking him into the top 20 tacklers across the league, smashing in an enviable 121 in those matches.

His ball-carrying in this campaign has been even more impressive as he led the way at London Wasps with 124 carries in those 15 matches, offloading as effectively as any player at the club. Johnson had been no less impressive in the tackle area, completing 11 turnovers, a total surpassed by only one other player in England, the Leicester Tiger Julian Salvi. In fact, Johnson was only missing from one significant statistical list and that was the one charting missed tackles – he was nowhere to be seen in that one!

Those statistics didn’t go unnoticed by Wasps director of rugby Dai Young, who rewarded him – at the end of his first season – with a three-year contract extension. Young is a shrewd operator and could see after Johnson’s first, impressive, season it wouldn’t be long before other European clubs came calling.

Johnson arrived in High Wycombe on the back of a great Super Rugby campaign with the Cheetahs in 2011, along with Wales legend Stephen Jones, who has since progressed to the coaching team at Wasps.

At the time of his arrival the club was going through a period of financial upheaval but Johnson’s loyalty has been richly rewarded as Wasps now have a new owner in Irish businessman Derek Richardson, who brings a solid foundation to the 2006-07 European Cup winners.

Richardson’s financial support has already seen Young make a number of significant forays into the transfer market, with established Wales international Bradley Davies joining young English stars James Gaskell and Rob Miller, who have been signed for next season.

‘There is a great atmosphere at the club and we expect a bright future,’ says Johnson, who is in great form as his club battles for a place in the highest echelons of European rugby next season.

‘We have a great set-up off the field, which is making a big difference to the team. I’m part of a squad that is building for the future and I’m really happy to be part of what we are doing here.’

Wasps are typical in the Premiership in that they have built a team with a core of Englishmen, enriched by a handful of overseas stars like Johnson.

‘I think we have a good blend,’ says Johnson. ‘Like many teams in the league, we have some talented young English players, supplemented by overseas signings like myself and Andrea Masi.’

At 27, Johnson hasn’t given up on his international ambitions. With the World Cup on ‘home’ soil, for an uncompromising back row he could just be in the right place at the right time for the Springboks.

– This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt