Ashley Johnson is like a rampaging mutant from some apocalyptic Manga, clattering through defensive walls in the Aviva Premiership with such force it’s as if he could knock a moon out of orbit.
Johnson has three Springbok Test caps but he’s now a Wasps centurion. The brains trust at the prestigious Premiership club saw fit to continue the experiment started by Naka Drotske at the Toyota Cheetahs where Johnson was shifted between loose forward and hooker between 2007 and 2012.
Johnson has since evolved into that exceptionally rare, sought-after breed of utility forward that is adept at numerous positions. This makes Johnson a very useful squad player. It’s chief among a few reasons why I’d welcome his return to the Bok fold, particularly now with the crocked Bongi Mbonambi out of action for a while.
Barring injury, Malcolm Marx should be the Springbok’s first-choice hooker. He’ll grow even more comfortable in this role over the next 18 months – a frightening prospect for his opponents.
Bismarck Du Plessis is a Cell C Sharks centurion and he’s not far from attaining one hundred caps for his beloved Boks. But the grizzled battleship will be 35 come the 2019 Rugby World Cup and perhaps a yard or two off the pace then. He’s won a World Cup, a Tri-Nations title, and a series against the British & Irish Lions. Having been there and done that, he might not want to keep fighting for the jersey as much as he’d just like to frame it.
Would Bismarck be happy with being second choice to Marx? We saw how that went during the John Smit era. Johnson, on the other hand, has become a master of making an impact off the bench and still has a point to prove at Test level.
Chiliboy Ralepelle may also be determined to drink from rugby’s most coveted trophy but he doesn’t perform consistently. Historically, Ralepelle hasn’t always been managed well by his coaches though he didn’t help himself by getting banned from the game for two years and is now third-choice in Durban.
Scarra Ntubeni has shown plenty of heart and glimpses of promise but he’s perennially injured and can’t seem to finish a single season without breaking down. And Akker van der Merwe has bulldozed his way into fans’ hearts with eyebrow-raising cameos that earned him call-ups to the Barbarians in 2016 and again last year.
Johnson, however, was part of a victorious Bok team against the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth in 2011. He knows how to handle pressure and secure a win for his country and for Wasps. He’s never had an extended run in the Green and Gold and he’ll be very hungry for more. Johnson will be 33 next year – old enough to rank as an experienced veteran without being over the hill.
During his career, Danie Rossouw repeatedly showed the immense value of a highly-effective utility forward and, while Franco Mostert’s shift to blindside flanker is all the rage at the moment, Johnson’s been pin-balling between positions with aplomb for most of his career.
As Rassie Erasmus fleshes out plans to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Johnson would be an inspired choice to cover Marx and back up the back row.
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