London Wasps have enjoyed a sensational turnaround in their fortunes this season. What has changed?
Their maturing crop of youngsters are now regular first team starters or have even higher honours. Joe Launchbury is now an established England starter, while Billy Vunipola, Christian Wade and Elliot Daly feature in the current England Saxons squad, awaiting their own first caps.
The club also recruited well last summer, with the return of England stars James Haskell and Tom Palmer. Seasoned international veterans Andrea Masi and Stephen Jones also joined the ranks as fitting mentors to Wasps’ young and upcoming home-grown backline contingent.
Another new signing has gone quietly about his business, leaving the majority of the headlines to his team mates. Ashley Johnson, the former Free State Cheetah number eight capped three times by South Africa, is a pretty terrifying, imposing player on the pitch; always taking the ball at full speed and hurling his body into opposition defenders, without much regard for his own personal safety. He is however very different off it; softly spoken, always grinning, and much more of a gentle figure to the person you recognise on the field of play.
He has a calm demeanour and is very honest about the club’s improvements this season. “Dai (Young) has brought in some new faces but he brought a lot of young guys in last year like Billy (Vunipola), Sam (Jones), Elliot (Daly), Christian (Wade) and Joe (Launchbury), which was character building for the team. A lot of the success this year can be attributed to what the team went through last year. Lessons were learned and the team has learned from its mistakes.”
In terms of Premiership imports this season, Johnson, whose childhood hero was the South African 1995 Rugby World Cup winner Chester Williams, is up there with the very best newcomers to the Aviva Premiership. His performances have improved game by game, as he adapts to the tempo of European club rugby.
He talks of the striking similarities with the atmosphere that exists at Wasps and what he experienced at Bloemfontein. “The Cheetahs are a small community and you feel like the guys you play with are friends. It’s the same here. We’re not a big squad but everyone does their job and knows that they need to contribute to the team”.
A shift to the blindside to make way for Billy Vunipola, who is heading to Saracens next season, at the base of the scrum hasn’t had a negative effect on Johnson’s form and he believes he has developed even more as a player at Wasps. “Billy and I have a good understanding about our roles in the team. We have a quality back row – the competition is quite tight but I love playing with the guys and I’ve learned a lot.”
Of his time in South Africa he admits he has a slight regret at not being quite ready to face the British and Irish Lions in 2009. “I was a fringe, young player. It’s a regret I have. It’s one of the main games that South African, Australian and New Zealand players target, a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
It was not a disappointment that the former Paarl Gymnasium, a school also attended by Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers, student appeared to dwell on. A series of powerful displays in the Cheetah’s 2009 Currie Cup campaign led to the then South African coach, Peter De Villiers, selecting Johnson for the 2009 end of year European tour and he appeared in midweek matches against Saracens and Leicester.
It was not until 2011, in a Tri Nations test against Australia in Sydney that he finally made his first international appearance for the Springboks. This is undoubtedly Johnson’s most special moment as a professional rugby player. “There are hundreds of thousands of rugby players back home – for you to be selected for that day means that you’re one of the best 15 guys in South Africa. Just to sing the national anthem was the biggest highlight in my career.”
He is not focusing on a return to international rugby but believes his English adventure will stand him in good stead in the run up to Rugby World Cup selection in 2015. “It was one of the reasons why I moved – getting familiar with the conditions here. If I get selected I can contribute to their success and to that campaign. It’s going to be invaluable to get one or two guys that have experience of these conditions.”
Realistic goals are the focus for Wasps for the remainder of the campaign. “We want to keep improving, take it game by game and give ourselves the opportunity to make the top six. If we play well and if there is a chance of making the top four in the last rounds we’ll certainly go for it but the top six is the overall aim.”
Appearing in the Heineken Cup would fully justify his decision to move to English rugby. “I want to test myself in all competitions. To play in the Heineken Cup would be another challenge to face the best of the best.”
He will have an opportunity to test himself against a European powerhouse in two months’ time when Wasps face Leinster in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter finals. “It’s a big challenge. We’ll definitely fill Adams Park. It’s going to be an amazing occasion.”
Considering that their side narrowly avoided top flight relegation, and entering administration, at the end of last season, Wasps fans will be more than satisfied with a top six finish in the Aviva Premiership. They will also not be too concerned with Billy Vunipola’s end of season departure. Ashley Johnson and his back row mates will cope.
by Alastair Pickering (@AMP_Rugby)