World Rugby’s sevens circus begins again this Friday, first in Dubai and then Cape Town the following weekend – and it would not be human if a little bit of James Johnstone wasn’t yearning for the Middle East sunshine.
However, having come through the national sevens squad and having played on the circuit for about five years, Johnstone is now focusing on being an integral part of Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh team which takes on Munster in Cork on Friday night.
“This is a different opportunity and a different level of rugby,” he said. “I am a lot more challenged playing fifteens and I am enjoying it. I feel like I am getting a bit more out of it.
“I am still learning as I go. I have been in the fifteens for a good year and a bit so, yeah, still getting up to speed with it. Just been concentrating on the fifteens now.”
The opportunity to play pro-team rugby came late to Johnstone who, at the age of 27 last year (he is now 28), must have thought he had missed the boat. He was a key member of Scotland’s sevens side that had won the London tournament twice under the watchful eye of Calum McRae who has since become Edinburgh’s defensive expert. If Edinburgh were short on midfielders, McRae knew one he could recommend.
Johnstone has since started 16 times in the PRO14 and made another seven appearances off the Edinburgh bench. He made an almost immediate impact, showing up well against Leinster in the early rounds of last season. And while Edinburgh eventually succumbed to a late try at the RDS, he had done his cause no harm.
“James did very, very well against Leinster,” Cockerill noted in the aftermatch, “he’s got a cutting edge about him that we probably haven’t had previously.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing since, and that cutting edge is needed more than ever before, but Johnstone insists that he has no regrets in taking up the challenge that he was handed.
“I was focused on sevens,” he says. “I was happy being a sevens players and we were doing quite well. I was in a good place but this opportunity came up out the blue and I am happy it did. I didn’t think I would get the chance to play fifteens after I had those injuries and after playing sevens. But for Cockers to give me the chance to come into the team last year was one I jumped at.
“He just sort of said, ‘there is an opportunity to play here if you wanted to come and do that?’ It was on a week by week basis and I eventually got that opportunity to play, which I wasn’t expecting to happen to be honest. I was expecting to go back and play the sevens season when it came around again. But I managed to take a couple of those opportunities and I have not looked back since then. I have been involved quite a bit which has been great.
“Defensively I have learned a lot, how to defend in those channels when there is a lot more traffic about. I am still working on trying to get into the game a bit more in attack and trying to get my hands on the ball a bit more. Defensively I feel like I am reading the game well, doing a good job there but I still need to be more prominent in games and that is what I’ll be looking to do going forward.”
The last time Edinburgh played Munster in Ireland was last year’s PRO14 quarter-final at Thomond Park. Johnstone came off the bench and Edinburgh probably should have won a tight contest.
Friday night is a different venue, Musgrave Park, and it promises a different story. Edinburgh have yet to win on the road this season and they are unlikely to end that sorry statistic.