Hamstrung Johnston joins elite company
Alex Johnston's remarkable season continued on Friday night with the Rabbitohs fullback crossing for a hat-trick in his side's 36-18 win over the Warriors to take his tally to 22 tries.
Unfortunately, his evening was cut short when he was helped from the field late in the game with what looked to be a hamstring injury.
The 22-year-old had a slow start to the year scoring just four tries in the first nine rounds, but a mid-year switch to the wing reinvigorated his attack with Johnston nabbing 11 four-pointers in six matches.
His return to the No.1 jersey in Round 21 has seen him cross seven times in the past four weeks to put him four tries clear of Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu with two games remaining in the regular season.
Johnston was at his damaging best on Friday as he toyed with the Warriors defence for 73 minutes, only to pull up lame as he touched down for his third try late in the contest.
The speedster has already bettered his personal best haul of 21 tries in a season set back in 2014, and is level with former Rabbitohs great Nathan Merritt who nabbed 22 in 2006 and went one better five years later.
While Les Brennan's club record 29 tries in 1954 is out of reach, Johnston – who has scored 17 tries in his past seven matches at ANZ Stadium – is a genuine chance of at least matching Merritt's 2011 haul if scans on his hamstring are all clear.
"I think he's probably got something there so we'll have to assess that which is really unfortunate because he's been playing some great footy," Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire said.
"I think he's looking at records in and around the club at scoring tries. He's equal with Nathan Merritt at the moment so he'll work hard to get back and have a crack at that."
Johnston's cracking form has sparked debate as to whether he should retain the No.1 jersey next season when superstar fullback Greg Inglis returns from injury, while Origin star Dane Gagai is also set to join the Bunnies and is more than capable of filling the role.
"We'll just work that out as it comes," Maguire said. "I'm just pleased for AJ that he's been able to find some really good form as a fullback."
Rabbitohs veteran John Sutton has played with both Merritt and Johnston and said that while there were a few similarities between the pair, they each possessed their own unique attributes.
"To be honest, I think they're a little bit different," Sutton said.
"Nath had more of a knack of being where the ball is. I think AJ just has that speed when he gets the ball so he can just burn players when he steps them up."