World Rugby’s flying sevens circus gets up and running tomorrow, first in Dubai and then Cape Town the following weekend. Having come through the national sevens squad and having played on the circuit for about five years, James Johnstone would not be human if a little bit of him wasn’t yearning for the Middle East sunshine.
The last time he played sevens with Scotland in Dubai, the team finished a creditable fifth. Now, given the players available to Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh will do well to finish second to Munster in whatever weather Cork cares to throw at them on tomorrow night.
“I’ve done Dubai five or six times and I’ve done that,” he says. “This is a different opportunity and a different level of rugby. I am a lot more challenged playing 15s and I am enjoying it. I feel like I am getting a bit more out of it.
“I am not the biggest fan of cold weather. It’s just because it [Dubai] is the start of the [sevens] season so it’s quite an exciting time for those guys going away to Dubai and Cape Town but I have just been focusing on what I have got here to be honest.
“I am still learning as I go. I have been in the 15s for a good year and a bit so, yeah, still getting up to speed with it.”
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, the sevens refusenik had done his cause no harm at all. “James did very, very well against Leinster,” Cockerill noted after the match. “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 15s 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 but I still need to be more prominent in games. That’s what I’ll look to do.”
The last time Edinburgh played Munster in Ireland was last year’s Pro14 quarter-final at Thomond Park and Edinburgh probably should have won a tight contest. Tomorrow 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 run tomorrow.