MyPlayers chats to former Cheetahs and Griffons loose forward Ashley Johnson, who is thriving at his English club London Wasps.
MyPlayers: Why the decision to play abroad?
Johnson: I had six good seasons at the Cheetahs, so it was the right time for me to experience a new challenge. I always wanted to experience life overseas, especially with my young family. The opportunity to earn pounds was also a big motivating factor.
MyPlayers: How did you settle in?
Johnson: The admin is a difficult process. Having to lease a home and organise travel arrangements can be tough. I bumped into Nic Groom after our match against Northampton Saints. The poor guy had to go through all of that stress recently. Life is also a bit different as the locals in England use public transport. There aren’t many wide roads, so traffic can get bad. I had to get used to travelling with the bus or tube (underground train).
MyPlayers: How are you enjoying your rugby?
Johnson: It’s my fifth year in England and I feel I’ve improved a lot. The conditions and physical game has challenged me, but I’ve grown into my own. I’ve made the switch to hooker, which I’m really enjoying. It’s a move that will prolong my career.
MyPlayers: How different is the rugby system?
Johnson: When a player enters the professional system after school, the focus is not on age-group rugby. England focus on academies and they act as an immediate feeder system. An English club competes during various tournaments at the same time during the year, like the league, knockouts or European competition, whereas different tournaments run at different stages of the year in South Africa (Super Rugby starts in February and the Currie Cup in August). So English clubs depend on wider squads during the season, which gives their younger players more senior opportunities.
MyPlayers: What do you make of the standard of European rugby?
Johnson: I know many people rate Super Rugby as the best tournament in the world, but the European competitions are very tough. I feel the European Cup is the closest that club rugby can get to Test rugby. For example, when you play against French giants Toulon, you get the best of the south and the north. A team with Juan Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Leigh Halfpenny creates a massive challenge. There are many international across all the leagues and that will only increase the competitiveness.
MyPlayers: How is life off the field?
Johnson: My wife and three children are enjoying life in England. We get to travel every now and then. We’ve visited the England tourist spots, including the Big Ben and the London Eye. My parents and mother-in-law also visited us during their holidays, which was nice.
MyPlayers: Any advice to South African players headed your way?
Johnson: Keep an open mind. There are many things that will force you out of your comfort zone, but there are many rewards if you work hard and make the most of your opportunities.
For more exclusive player content, check out MyPlayers.co.za