“I’m Alex Johnston, left winger for the South Sydney Rabbitohs”.
That’s how the man who last year scored more tries in a season than anyone since 1954 introduces himself in a promotional video for KARI Foundation ahead of his fifth appearance for the Indigenous All Stars at CommBank Stadium on February 12.
Yet for most of his career Johnston had wanted to play fullback and he was almost lost to the Rabbitiohs two years ago because he craved the No.1 jersey while Wayne Bennett believed his best position was wing.
However, after scoring 30 tries in 23 matches last season to eclipse the previous NRL record of 25 tries in a season, held jointly by Nathan Blacklock (Dragons 2000), Rhys Wesser (Panthers 2003) and Brett Morris (Dragons 2009), is now content to be a winger.
Alex Johnston's 30 tries in season 2021
“I want to stay on the left wing forever now and just score a heap of tries,” Johnston told NRL.com. “That is the goal anyway.”
Johnston credits the players around him, headed by fellow Indigenous stars Cody Walker, Dane Gagai and Latrell Mitchell, for putting him over the tryline more times last year than anyone has done in a season besides Dave Brown (38 tries for Easts in 1935) and Ray Preston (34 tries for Newtown in 1954).
However, the 27-year-old was also inspired by the birth of his son, Sonny, who was named after the Sonny Koufax character played by Adam Sandler in the 1999 movie Big Daddy and not Bulldogs, Roosters and All Blacks great Sonny Bill Williams.
“It was a pretty special year for myself and I think it started at home with the birth of my son,” Johnston said. “I think that just made my footy go to the next level; just playing for him and having that excitement outside the game.
“It helped me realise that footy is something I love doing and I get to do it for a job so I am very lucky, and I want to go out there and enjoy it.
“This year it is going to be no different. I am just going to go out there to have fun and try to make everyone proud. It is not about topping what I did last year, it is just about doing my best and if I get to achieve anything it will the cherry on top.”
Johnston made his first All Stars appearance in 2015, the year after helping Souths to premiership glory in his debut NRL season, and he is the now one of the senior members of the Indigenous team with Josh Addo-Carr, Ryan James and Andrew Fifita.
He said the eight newcomers to the Indigenous team were set for a life changing experience as they learned about culture and history while preparing to face the Maori All Stars for the first time in Sydney.
“It’s a game where obviously there is a lot of pride and joy involved as well, and the whole week is just special, so it is a great way to kick off the year,” Johnston said.
“It is a rep game obviously and it was an honour to be selected but I didn’t know what went on behind the scenes - going out to community, and educating and learning about your culture - and that is something I have really come to love about this game.
“When you come together everyone is just brothers and you feel that in this side. It is a special connection you don’t really get elsewhere and to pull the jersey on with guys who share your culture is pretty cool.”
Johnston, whose grandmother Mary was born in Papua New Guinea and raised in Lumi, in Sandaun Province, is preparing to represent the Kumuls at the end-of-season World Cup in England after playing two Tests in 2019.
However, Johnston said the All Stars camp had encouraged him to learn more about his Indigenous heritage and he was planning a trip to Saibai Island in the Torres Strait, where Mary’s family had originated from as part of the Crocodile Clan, which is his totem.
“I didn’t really grow up knowing too much about it, but my mum has done a lot of the work for me,” Johnston said.
“She has tried to connect with a lot of the family from Saibai but obviously COVID hasn’t helped when we were trying to organise to go back to the actual island to see it. That is still a goal of mine and I want to do that for sure.”