James Johnstone ‘gutted’ for Mark Bennett but centre senses chance

Edinburgh's James Johnstone passes to WP Nel in training. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Edinburgh's James Johnstone passes to WP Nel in training. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
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Edinburgh centre James 
Johnstone accepts that Mark Bennett’s injury setback presents him with an opportunity but takes no pleasure from his luckless team-mate’s latest blow.

After battling back from a series of shoulder and knee issues, 23-times capped midfielder Bennett ruptured his hamstring in the defeat at Ulster a week past Friday and is now facing at least another six months on the sidelines.

Johnstone appears to be the next cab off the rank in the outside centre berth, ahead of Chris Dean, as the 28-year-old continues to build a career in the 15-a-side game which the former Scotland Sevens star admits has come as a pleasant surprise.

“He’s a great player and has had a bit of bad luck with injuries in recent years,” said Johnstone of Bennett. “I’m really gutted for him as he was starting to come into his own again.

“I’m really disappointed that happened. If the opportunity arises for me then great but on a personal note for him it’s obviously devastating.”

Dumfries RFC product 
Johnstone has grasped the opportunity given to him by Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, who has been keen to utilise players from the 
Sevens programme, bringing Dougie Fife back to the pro team as well as Johnstone and Jamie Farndale.

“I didn’t expect last season to pan out the way it did,” added Johnstone. “I thought I’d be back with the Sevens come November, December time but the opportunity arose and I managed to take a few in the games I played. “I was delighted to get a few games under my belt and show that I could play 15s at this level.”

Johnstone confessed that, as he entered his late 20s, he felt that the prospect of a full professional contract had passed him by as he continued the globe-trotting life on the World Sevens Series circuit.

“Possibly. I was enjoying the sevens at the time and wasn’t really thinking about 15s as I hadn’t had any opportunities,” he said. “When Cockers [coach Cockerill] gave me the chance it was a surprise.

“I would have stayed in sevens and that would have been it for me.

“I enjoyed doing it. If it wasn’t for the sevens, I wouldn’t have continued playing rugby 
probably .

At the time I moved across there [to the Sevens programme] it gave me a new lease of life to enjoy playing.”

Johnstone made his Edinburgh debut away to Leinster last year and is hoping to get the nod for another run out at the RDS on Saturday evening as Edinburgh head to face the Pro14 and European champions off the back of their first win of the season at home to Connacht last Friday.

“Richard sort of just said there was going to be opportunity here and he wanted to see me play and what I can do and take it step by step from there,” continued Johnstone.

“I did sevens for quite a few years so I’d been around the block a few times. This is a different challenge for me and one I wanted.”

“It wasn’t ‘you’re in for the season’ it was take it short term and see how you get on. To be honest I wasn’t expecting to play when I got my first opportunity, which was Leinster away last year. It was a surprise when he named that team. I managed to play fairly well and that confirmed to him I could play at that level.

“That was great to get a performance out there last year. I know we lost [21-13] but there was a lot to take from that, confidence. It stood us in good stead because we then knew we could compete with the best teams. That gave us belief.”

Johnstone insisted that last week’s 17-10 win over Connacht after close defeats in Swansea and Belfast have Edinburgh in a good frame of mind for their toughest test of the season 
so far.

“I think the confidence levels were always pretty positive even after we got those narrow losses but it was important to get that win at the weekend,” he said.

“The vibe’s still good, still positive. It certainly helps to have a bit of momentum coming into this week.”