The Eagles assemble next week to prep for their tests with Canada and Japan, and they’ve all been training heavily already. Some have done so on their own, and a bevy of them have come together in Denver to create a camp-like environment. One Eagle who’s gone a different route altogether is prop Will Johnson.
During the Churchill Cup, Johnson realized he most likely wouldn’t be resigning with the London Irish, with whom he’d spent the previous season, so he sought advice from some of the contacts he’s made while playing abroad.
“Anton Oliver (former All Black hooker) is a friend of mine from Oxford, and I had had a chat with him about it, about what his opinion was about how best to prepare for World Cup, and I wrote him an email saying, 'Look I have this idea about maybe going to the southern hemisphere and doing a bit of training down there,'” Johnson told RUGBYMag.com.
“A friend had put me on to Al Baxter, the Waratahs and Wallabies tighthead who had offered to do a bit of work, and that was appealing to go down and also train at Sydney University, but really, if I was going to make the trek, talking with Anton, it seemed an opportunity to work with Mike Cron (All Black scrum coach and universally-anointed scrum guru) was the best opportunity in the world in terms of developing as a tighthead in preparation for the World Cup.
“I also wanted to be in a place where they were playing a bit of rugby just to keep my match fitness up and train, keep playing rugby rather than go home and smash the gym on my own or stay in London.”
Cron wouldn’t be available the entire time frame in which Johnson was working, but he volunteered the services of his son, Daniel Cron, scrum coach for the Wellington Hurricanes and Lions, as well as for Tonga.
“So Dan Cron and I started corresponding through email. It was a bit daunting because I didn’t know anyone in Wellington and didn’t necessarily want to impose on a friend of a friend to say, ‘Hey can you put me up for a month while I come and live your life and eat your food and follow you around?’, said Johnson."
“Also, at first I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to unfold, but Dan was incredibly gracious and encouraging, so the plan unfolded that I would go spend a week in Sydney and train at Sydney (University) and with the Waratahs and Al Baxter, but obviously their Super Rugby season was up, so the Waratahs was a bit quiet.
“Sydney University was a great home for a week, and they have great facilities, but then I booked a ticket to spend the majority of the month here in Wellington, and it’s been great. Everyday I’ve been working one-on-one with Dan Cron, and he sends the video nightly to his father Mike, who has up until this week, offered feedback by proxy, and then this week with the All Blacks in town I’ve actually had the opportunity to work with Mike individually each day of the week and then with the All Black front row since Tuesday, which has been awesome.”
Johnson was initially invited to observe the All Black training sessions, but then an opposing lineout needed an extra forward, as did the scout scrum, and Johnson was giddily willing to step in. That led to Johnson sitting on the bench for the Wellington Lions during their game against Canterbury Wednesday and standing on the All Blacks sideline during their Tri Nations clash with South Africa Saturday.
“Mike (Cron) asked if I’d be willing and interested to dress up in Adidas kit and stand on the sideline and warm up the replacement (All Black) tighthead,” Johnson said. “That was an easy yes.”
Sunday, after taking in the Tri Nations experience, the Harvard and Oxford grad hops on a plane bound for Denver and the Eagles assembly. There he’ll be one of five props vying for a World Cup roster spot. In each of Eddie O’Sullivan’s previous two World Cup teams (both with Ireland) he’s only included four props. If he follows suit with his first American World Cup team, all but one prop still in the running will make the trip to New Zealand. What would it mean to Johnson to be one of them?
“To make the team would be a tremendous honor. I’m honored already to be in the 36, and I came down here in an effort to put my best foot forward to make the final 30 to represent the USA in the World Cup,” he said.
“That’s been my goal since I signed with the London Irish -- spend a year in the most professional environment I could, training as best I could to become as quickly as possible the best scrummaging and loose tighthead I could, so making the World Cup squad would be the culmination of all that work and would mean literally everything that I’ve worked towards has been successful.”
Johnson is also hopeful that in the month he’s spent in Australia and New Zealand he’s made in-roads that will land him a home after the World Cup.
“I’ve been talking to a couple of sides down here, have been well received in the sides that I’ve trained with and parted ways today with the coaching staff with the Lions on favorable terms and been invited to consider maybe doing an ITM Cup season next year," he said.
“I’ve taken a look around, and part of the benefit of training in the Waratahs' facilities was just to see what a Super Rugby facility looks like and to imagine playing in Australia, and I’m hopeful, having gotten in front of a few people and done the gym workouts and trained with people, I’ve shown that I have the tools to be a top-level tight head prop, because they’re at a premium.
“I also have representation who’s representing my interests in England and in France. I think it’s important to get out and play well in the World Cup and to answer any questions people may have, so that in the back end of it I can find the right club and the right environment that’ll help me continue to develop.”
To get the chance to play well in the World Cup, Johnson needs to perform well in his opportunities against Canada and/or Japan over the coming weeks.