Centre Stage | Sam Johnson
Sam Johnson has a big grin on his face. He’s just stepped out of the post-match dinner at BT Murrayfield following Scotland’s 33-20 win over Italy and along with a sharp suit he’s proudly wearing his Scotland cap.
Cap number 1,100 was presented to Johnson by Scottish Rugby’s President, Dee Bradbury, and it’s clear that receiving it has topped off what has been a memorable day for the 25-year-old Scotland centre.
“It’s surreal isn’t it?” he said. “To be able to do it at BT Murrayfield and have my parents and sister and niece over from Australia, and my girlfriend and her family here as well, it was a moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Australia-born Johnson might be a new addition the Scotland starting line-up, but he’s already a familiar face to Glasgow Warriors fans. He signed for the Warriors ahead of the 2015/16 season from Queensland Reds, and qualified for Scotland on residency grounds three years later.
The centre first played schoolboy rugby for Australia 'A' after winning the Associated Independent Colleges competition with St Edmund's College in 2011.
He played rugby league for the Gold Coast Titans U20s after school, before returning to rugby union at the end of 2013, when he joined the Queensland Reds wider training squad and returned to his former club GPS.
Johnson made two Super Rugby appearances for the Reds and was named on the bench a further three times, before joining his club-mates at Scotstoun having impressed then-Glasgow Head Coach Gregor Townsend with his performances and potential.
Johnson has gone on to make 46 appearances and score four tries for the Warriors and he says that his time in Glasgow has made joining the Scotland camp a less daunting experience than it might otherwise have been.
“Having familiar faces around me definitely helps, especially for your first cap,” he says. “Coming into camp, it doesn’t really matter what club you’re from, everyone’s been really welcoming. We’ve all got one goal to achieve, so it’s been really good and hopefully there’s plenty more to come.”
The Australian centre has impressed with a string of consistently high-quality performances in the Warriors’ midfield and he was jointly voted as the club’s 2017/18 Player's Player of the Season.
Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend familiarity with Johnson’s abilities led to the centre being earmarked for including in the Scotland squad in the run-up to the 2018 Autumn Tests, only for Johnson to be ruled out with a knee injury.
Johnson is philosophical about having missed out on the earlier chance to wear the thistle, saying “It’s just one of those things - I was obviously a bit gutted at first but life goes on and I’ve got good people around me and here we are today.”
Gregor Townsend was clear about why he’d chosen Johnson for his Guinness Six Nations squad, saying that although the mid-fielder hadn’t played a huge amount of rugby before coming over to Scotland, every time he has been given an opportunity he’s performed well and has continuously improved.
“He had an excellent season last year and, although he’s been unlucky with injuries this year, he’s timed his return to playing well and has managed to get some game time before the championship,” said Townsend. "He’s a very good defender, is someone who communicates well in attack and has a passing ability to put others in space.”
Known for his line breaks and ability to punch holes in a defence, Johnson showed no signs of nerves on his debut for Scotland, seamlessly fitting in to the starting 15.
“I sort of knew I was playing, but once the team’s officially named it hits you,” he said. “It’s such a privilege and a moment I’ll never forget.”
The memories began long before the kick-off, with Johnson saying the the whole occasion, from running out in front of 67,000 fans right through to singing karaoke the the audience at the post-match dinner, is something he’ll always remember.
“It was pretty awesome,” he said. “I really enjoyed being introduced to Princess Anne - my girlfriend and her family are huge fans of the Royal Family so she’ll be super-jealous.”
Having gained plenty of experience in the Guinness PRO 14 and the Heineken Champions Cup, Johnson’s performance on the pitch at BT Murrayfield against Italy was of a typically high standard.
“Personally, I’ve got such good players around me that as long as I give them good clean ball and make my tackles I’m pretty happy with how I go,” he says.
He admits that the team will have to improve in the second round of the tournament after a final quarter that allowed Italy back into the game.
“As a team, we’ll take the first 65 minutes against Italy as a good standard but with a big test against Ireland coming up, we can’t allow that last 15 minutes to happen against them otherwise we’ll get even more punishment,” he said.
Johnson doesn’t seem remotely phased by the pressure that comes with a tournament on the scale of the Guinness Six Nations presents, and this weekend’s fixture against Ireland is one he’s looking forward to.
“You’ve got to go in with confidence,” he said. “Although you’re realistic when you know it’s going to be one of the toughest challenges in the Six Nations. But to have the home crowd BT Murrayfield behind us, that’s the equivalent of having an extra man out there, so bring it on.”