Newcastle rugby: Refreshed Johnston glad to be back at Blacks

IN-FORM: Maitland back-rower James Johnston will be a key figure if the Blacks are to progress to the semi-finals. Picture: Marina Neil

IN-FORM: Maitland back-rower James Johnston will be a key figure if the Blacks are to progress to the semi-finals. Picture: Marina Neil

TIERI is a small mining town, three hours west of Rockhampton. 

A dot on the map. It boasts a mess hall, gym and a hotel-motel. The nearest rugby club is in Capella, 30 minutes further west.

Tieri was home for Maitland back-rower James Johnston for 14 months. A surveyor at Glencore, the 25-year-old moved north as part of a graduate program. 

A Newcastle representative, he considered making the trek to Capella to play for the Cattle Dogs in the Central Highlands competition.

“When I got up there, I thought it might be a way to meet a few guys and settle in a bit,” Johnston said.

“I contacted the coach and all that, but it didn’t eventuate. Capella is 30 minutes away and the closest game another hour. I was a bit worn out after playing season after season at Maitland.

“I had two dodgy shoulders and a lot of aches and pains and decided to take a year off. When the Blacks were the game of the round on Bar TV I sat in my room watched the livestream.

“Last year they had a great start to the season and it definitely made me miss home.”

Johnston is back in Black. He returned to Maitland in February and is working at a mine near Muswellbrook.

“One of the biggest things I missed being in Queensland was being around the boys,” he said. 

“I have played footy with Rhys Watson and Michael Howell since I was 12. To get a game with them again is awesome. The culture in the past few years has definitely changed.”

Johnston’s role at the Blacks has also changed. 

Formally the go-to man in the pack, Johnston now has Travis Brooke, Michael Howell and Theo Risley to take the load.

“Travis runs the lineout and Howelly backs him up,” Johnston said. “I just worry about making tackles and being effective where possible.”

Co-coach Mick Hickling is glad to have him back at Marcellin.

“He gives us experience at back of scrum,” Hickling said. 

“He doesn’t have to do everything these days. He gets over the ad-line really well and is effective in defence.”

However, a likely season-ending knee injury to Sapati Peniata could force a reshuffle.

“We are waiting for scans, but it looks like Sap may have done his ACL,” Hickling said.

“He was been doing a great job at six. Whether we pull Travis back to eight and move Jimmy to the side, we are yet to decide.”

Once thing is certain, the Blacks need to bounce back after a shock 28-13 loss to University left them in danger of missing the finals.

“We have to start building momentum,” Johnston said. “If we can’t beat one of the next two teams, we don’t deserve to be in the finals.”

This story Refreshed Johnston back to best at Blacks first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.