Johnston aiming to cap dream year
When South Sydney coach Michael Maguire made the bold decision to dump club all-time leading try-scorer Nathan Merritt back to NSW Cup prior to the Round 8 Anzac Day clash against the Broncos, eyebrows were raised.
Only two weeks earlier Merritt had broken former winger Benny Wearing's 81-year try-scoring record by crossing for his 145th try in the red and green.
Not fazed by reputations, Maguire demoted a club legend back to reserve grade in favour of a baby-faced 19-year-old rookie by the name of Alex Johnston. Eighteen games and 21 tries later – the most by any player in the 2014 season and including the opening try in the Rabbitohs' 30-6 Grand Final triumph over the Bulldogs – Johnston is hoping to return to the Suncorp Stadium cauldron where it all began for him, but this time in an Australian jersey.
Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens will name his side on Tuesday for the Four Nations opening encounter against New Zealand on Saturday night with at least four debutants due to earn their maiden Test caps, with Johnston a serious contender for a starting berth on the wing.
In a week where Jarryd Hayne stated that he believed he'd achieved all there is in rugby league, Johnston may finish his rookie season with everything except an Origin jersey for New South Wales.
On top of his sparkling rookie season, a premiership that Souths fans had been waiting 43 years to revel in, a phone call from club coach Michael Maguire in his early morning sleep-induced haze made Johnston's dream a step closer to becoming reality.
The call was to confirm his selection in the Kangaroos squad, scuppering any plans of a well-earned holiday on the Gold Coast.
"[That phone call] woke me up that's for sure – I got excited straight away and had to ring my mum and dad and they were really happy," Johnston told NRL.com.
Since receiving that phone call two Sundays ago, the La Perouse Panthers junior has struggled to come to terms with what has been a whirlwind season.
"I didn't expect this at all, especially with the grand final win I'm just over the moon and I just count this as a bonus to be alongside these boys – I can't believe it," he said.
Johnston and Penrith's Josh Mansour are set to battle it out for a wing spot against the Kiwis with Roosters and NSW Origin winger Daniel Tupou expected to be named on the other flank.
If the former Australian Schoolboys fullback gets the nod to make his debut, it will mark the third occasion this season where he has had to line-up to sing the national anthem before a big match.
Not a tradition in regular club games, the Anzac Day clash against the Broncos meant instead of running out on the field and beginning the game straight away, Johnston had a nervous wait while standing arm-in-arm with his Rabbitohs teammates waiting to sing "Advance Australia Fair".
An emotional rendition of the Last Post would follow, with more than 44,000 fans standing in silence to pay their respects to those who have fallen defending their country.
"I think that [moment] may have escalated my nerves actually with the crowd as it was and the atmosphere," he said.
"[But] it made me a lot more excited as well. So I was just keen when I was out there to have my first run, have my first carry and do my best out there."
It didn’t take long for those nerves to ease as the Sydney-born youngster, who has Papua New Guinean heritage, crossed for his maiden NRL try in the 13th minute at the Caxton Street end of Suncorp Stadium.
More pre-game butterflies would ensue when he lined up to sing the anthem on Grand Final day, although the former Dux of Endeavour Sports High displayed a cool head and classy finishing when crossing for the opening try after 20 minutes.
Johnston, who is rooming with Rabbitohs teammate Greg Inglis on tour, would love nothing more than to belt out the anthem again come Saturday night, this time standing shoulder to shoulder with his boyhood idol.
"It's definitely a dream come true. There's no way I would have expected this especially being my first year," he said.
"Even playing a single game of NRL was a dream, but to win the championship and then to be here now with the Aussie boys, it's a dream come true."