The news yesterday morning that playmaker Finn Russell will miss this Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with France in Paris was the latest injury bodyblow and induced sighs around the country’s rugby fans, who are already reeling from the losses of pivotal figures like Stuart Hogg, WP Nel, Huw Jones and Ryan Wilson.
Russell failed his concussion return to play protocols which means Glasgow centre Johnson will have a new conductor inside him at the Stade de France on Saturday when he will be expected to win the third cap of what has been an impressive fledgling Test career.
“I think from an internal point of view, it doesn’t matter who puts on that jersey, you’re expected to do a job,” said the 25-year-old, who made an eyecatching debut in the opening win against Italy and scored a maiden international try in the subsequent home loss to Ireland.
“Obviously, from an outside point of view, people are going to be devastated with the people we’ve lost. I think we’ve got a good enough squad here. Finn’s a great player, but it doesn’t matter who comes in, whether it’s Pete Horne, Adam Hastings or Duncy Weir, you’ve got a job to do for Scotland and you’ve got to do it.”
Through his time at Scotstoun, the Queensland-born midfielder is well acquainted with all three of the options at head coach Gregor Townsend’s disposal, and would be happy to enter the Paris cauldron with any of them.
“I’ve played most with either Pete or Adam,” he explained. “I played a little bit with Duncy Weir when he was at Glasgow, but I feel comfortable outside of all of them. They’re probably three different kind of players and I’d put Adam possibly closest to Finn in style. He can do stuff off the bat.
“Both Pete and Duncy are very good communicators and my idea is to give them time to look after the forward pods and I’ll take care second third of the field if you want to call it that. There’s a big role for myself to help them through the day.”
Johnson has been specialising at inside centre but would be comfortable with a shunt outside if Horne ended up taking the No 12 jersey.
“I played 13 outside Pete against Leinster in a European Cup game, with Finn at 10. I’ve played a little bit at 13, possibly defensively is the biggest change.
“But they’re quality players, all three of them. It’s a massive thing in Scottish rugby lately, the depth, and everyone can talk about who is not there but you look at who is and you see there’s still a lot of guys around. We’ll be alright.”
The regular drumbeat of injuries has been the running theme of the championship so far, but Johnson is feeling no ill-effects from his introduction to the Test arena.
“I’m 100 per cent ready to go, so, hopefully, I’ll be involved this weekend and whoever’s around me it doesn’t really matter once you pull on that Scotland jersey. You’ve got a job to do, so we’ll go for it,” he said.
Johnson had his family over from Australia for those first two matches but they have now headed home as he prepares for his first taste of Test action on foreign soil.
“They could only stay so long,” said Johnson. “My old boy is a shocker. He works full-time but they call him Peter Pan because he’s never-never there. His name’s Peter. They’re just super proud of me and love coming over to Scotland now that I’ve been here for a while. Like any parent, they’re proud, as is the whole community back home, Ipswich, where I’m from.
“Mum and dad were over for both games and my sister and niece actually surprised me for that first game, so that was awesome to have them over and my girlfriend and her parents and sister were also at the first game.”
Johnson said that it was more external factors he found to be the big difference from Guinness Pro14 to Guinness Six Nations.
“It’s probably the occasion, more than the rugby, that’s different,” he said. “So, getting off the bus with the bagpipes, the national anthem, all that sort of stuff, the whole day is exhausting, not just the rugby. It’s definitely a step-up, the speed and physicality. You feel like you’ve played back-to-back Grand Finals in one game and you deserve four weeks off, but you’ve got to prepare again the following week. So, it’s definitely a new experience, but one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. It helps having similar faces around me and for me it’s just obviously a big occasion, but you prepare like it’s another game of rugby. I like to think if you get the clarity right during the week, then you take your opportunity, then you play free-flowing.”
Johnson has experienced victory in the French capital before, when Glasgow beat Racing 92 in Europe a couple of seasons ago but, despite the current travails of Les Bleus, is anticipating a ferocious contest at the weekend.
“You know the challenge ahead,” he said. “It’s not going to be an easy game, even if the media says France are out of form, they’re going to come out all guns blazing, especially that first 20 minutes in front of their crowd. So, I think we’ve got to go over there knowing it’s going to be a tough, tough game and there’s a reason that Scotland haven’t won there in 20 years, because it’s not an easy place to go.”