Lure of Brumbies
By Steve Spinks
Twelve months ago, Alstonville's Ben Johnston was playing rugby union for the Wollongbar Pioneers in the Far North Coast competition.
Tomorrow the talented outside back will run on for the Canberra Vikings in the Sydney first-grade competition.
Instead of playing alongside his amateur team-mates from the Pioneers, he will take the field with tried and true professionals from the ACT Brumbies Super 12 side including players such as Sam Norton-Knight, Matt Henjak, Jone Tawake, Guy Shepherdson and Nic Henderson.
"He played eight minutes off the bench for the Vikings against Parramatta recently," Ben's proud father Peter Johnston said.
"But he's got the call-up for the run-on side."
It's been a monumental 12 months.
Johnston moved to Canberra at the end of 2004 to pursue an offer from the Brumby Runners, which is the academy for up-and-coming ACT Super 12 players.
He just missed out on selection in the Australian Under-19 team earlier this year because of injury, but he has since been a proven performer for the Royals, which is a strong Canberra club.
Normally a fullback, Johnston will start on the wing against the fourth-placed Manly Marlins at Manly Oval.
Canberra are clinging to fifth spot and a semi-final position, and are desperate to arrest a bad trot of three consecutive losses.
"They selectors are impressed with his speed," Mr Johnston said.
"He's been doing some one-on-one training with a sprint coach and they think he's capable of being as quick as anyone around.
"He's a late developer."
The 18-year-old's explosive pace has also been noticed by Australian Sevens coach Glen Ella.
"Ben met Glen Ella and Ray Price at an oldies dinner in Canberra and Glen said they were interested in seeing him at the Sevens trials in Darwin later this year," Mr Johnston said.
"Glen suggested that he'd at the very least get a start at the Byron Bay Sevens."
For the past few years, Emerging Sevens teams have competed at the Byron tournament.
Besides the obvious lure of a professional contract, the Sevens team tours the world and competes in exotic locations such as Hong Kong and Dubai.
But there is an added attraction.
An Australian Sevens team will also be selected for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next year.
In September, Johnston will join a Tens team for an invitational tournament in Kuala Lumpur.
The winger started a cabinet-making apprenticeship after moving to Canberra, which leaves little additional time after work and rugby.
The teenager trains on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights with either the Runners, the Royals or the Vikings.
It's been a remarkable rise for a boy from the plateau who wasn't even sure he wanted to play rugby after completing Year 12 at Alstonville High School last year.
Johnston is also a talented cricketer who was invited to join a host of Sydney clubs last summer.
He was rated one of the best young fast bowlers in the area.
But in a surprise, Johnston decided to pursue his love of rugby after being invited to join the Brumby Runners.
However, he hasn't given up on cricket. Mr Johnston is taking his son's gear down so Ben can keep his hand in.