Johnston ready to reprise Inglis role
Life looks set to imitate art at Redfern with outstanding prospect Alex Johnston in line to step in for South Sydney fullback Greg Inglis when the superstar No.1 joins the Queensland Maroons camp for Origin I in little more than a week's time.
Johnston played a young Inglis in the NRL's 2009 season ad and with the Rabbitohs having to play three games without their Origin stars in the space of seven weeks, Johnston's instant acclimatisation to life in the NRL has coach Michael Maguire convinced he is the man to reprise the role in Inglis's absence.
The 19-year-old was moved from right wing to fullback in the latter stages of Saturday night's 40-18 defeat of the Titans and responded with a second try in the 68th minute following a George Burgess bust, a cameo that could soon lead to a starring role.
"We've got 'Merro' (Nathan Merritt) and Alex there so we'll probably play around with both of those guys when Greggy goes in," Maguire told NRL.com.
"That's why we gave Alex a bit of a go there at the back-end of the game. Alex is probably a fullback, he's played a lot of his footy at fullback and he showed what he can do there on the wing too, so he's pretty handy in both spots.
"He just really enjoys playing with the players he's got around him. The senior players have taken him under their wing and really made him feel part of the team. And you can see there - he backs it up with his performance."
It was a second dazzling performance in as many top-grade appearances for Johnston but no surprise to four-try hero against the Titans, Dylan Walker, who has been a teammate of Johnston's since the pair came together in South Sydney's under-16 Harold Matthews Cup team in 2010.
The pair regularly opposed each other for their junior clubs (Walker at Mascot and Johnston at La Perouse) but it was a schoolboys clash between Walker's Matraville High and Johnston's Endeavour Sports High that gave the greatest indication of Johnston's extraordinary talent.
"I was playing against him in a school game and he got on the inside and then stepped on my outside, chipped over the top," recalled Walker. "He couldn't get the bounce so he chipped it again without touching the ball and scored a try.
"I was like, Oh man. He's a pretty freakish player, he's naturally talented, he's awesome.
"We always remembered him when we were younger, he was always that fast kid and when he came up and played Harold Matts he was just awesome. He killed it for us and he's doing a great job for us [in the NRL]."
South Sydney will be without Inglis for games against the Sharks, Wests Tigers and Titans during the Origin period and having seen their winning percentage drop from 80 per cent to 50 per cent in his absence, need to uncover greater coping mechanisms.
Nathan Merritt could earn a NRL recall having filled in admirably at fullback in recent seasons but Walker backed his good mate to do the job if given the opportunity.
"For sure, AJ has been a fullback for a long time, all his junior career," Walker said when asked whether Johnston could handle the responsibility.
"'GI' is a special player – he's a one-of-a-kind player – but AJ is good at the back as well so he'll just have to train and see how he goes at the back but I've got complete confidence in him."
North Sydney have gone 0-3 since Merritt was sensationally dropped to the NSW Cup ahead of South Sydney's clash with the Broncos in Round 8 but Maguire said the Rabbitohs' greatest ever tryscorer has handled his demotion with the utmost professionalism.
"Excellent; really, really good," was Maguire's appraisal of Merritt's attitude on the training paddock since his demotion.
"He understands and last week he went away and performed really well and he's doing everything that he needs to so I give him a lot of credit for that."