Former Wasps forward Ashley Johnson is looking forward to his National League challenge after becoming a player-coach at Birmingham Moseley.
In these unprecedented and difficult times, a bit of luck now and again can go a long way.
For Ashley Johnson, ‘luck’ is just how he described his recent move to Birmingham Moseley after being announced as a player-coach for the National One outfit.
The former Wasps hooker told ncarugby.com: “It was pure luck! I was very fortunate to be honest. I think when you have been around the West Midlands and coaching, you love rugby and when I am not playing on a Saturday, you’ll find me taking in some sort of club rugby!
“We went to watch one of my best mates, Cliffie [Hodgson] at Moseley last season and at the club, there were a lot of South African’s that came over to watch the rugby! From that, I just happened to meet Glacks [Pete Glackin – Head Coach] and Balders [Adam Balding – Director of Rugby] and they said, if anything comes up next season, we would be open to you coming to the club. Obviously, this is a great opportunity to transition with all the uncertainty so they came up with an offer and we struck a deal.”
From the outside looking in, there doesn’t seem to be much ‘fortune’ about Johnson linking up with the National One side. His expertise, combined with Moseley’s vision, sounds like a perfect match.
Despite question marks around when the 2020/21 season may begin due to the coronavirus pandemic, teams are putting together their plans, including Birmingham Moseley.
Director of Rugby Adam Balding spoke to ncarugby.com last week about being ‘happy’ with the squad he and his coaching staff have assembled thus far. A whole host of new faces and re-signings have not gone unnoticed and the arrival of Johnson will only add to the buzz around Billesley Common.
“The club’s style is great,” Johnson said. “They are not afraid to play attacking rugby and I also think it is great to see the type of people they attract in terms of players and especially the fans.
“Adam has done an amazing job recruiting all of these players. Obviously, I was playing with some of these boys as well. I have coached Morgan Dawes, David Langley has been at Wasps so I’ve played with him so it is brilliant to see all the guys coming in and at the same time, they have retained very well too.
“You can’t really choose where you are going to go, but it’s nice to know you’re going to a club where that’s the type of people you’re going to work with.”
Johnson admitted he has been humbled by the support and the welcome he has already received, with Moseley able to bring the former Springbok to Billesley Common thanks to the generosity of their fans who donated to the club’s ‘I Built The Team Project.’
The 34-year-old also revealed he did have opportunities to move abroad to continue his career, but turned down the offers to stay in the Midlands.
Johnson added: “I had the chance to go to South Africa, but it was a family decision firstly more than a rugby decision. I was looking to transition and looking to stay in the UK so it was a great opportunity to join Moseley. It was about stability for my family too.”
With Johnson not upping sticks, it means he is closing in on a decade in the UK, which of course includes eight years in the Premiership with Wasps.
His move to Moseley was triggered by the Black and Golds not renewing his contract, but after his departure from Wasps, current head coach Lee Blackett said Johnson was ‘one of the best signings’ in the club’s history.
If the current Premiership season had played out as normal, Johnson would have hit a double century of appearances for Wasps, but he says he has no regrets when looking back on his time in the top-flight.
“With the lockdown, I think it gave me some time to reflect and sit down and look back on, not what I have achieved, but knowing that I did everything I could and gave it 100 per cent,” said Johnson.
“Every time I put the jersey on, I felt like I’d given it everything on the field and hopefully that is how it came across. I have got no regrets. 200 [appearances] would have been nice, but I am not a stats guy! If you speak to anyone, I am not about trophies or stuff like that. Hopefully I have left the jersey in a better position and I know all the youngsters will kick on and hopefully win some trophies for the club. I am really happy and now I look forward to my next adventure.”
Having worked alongside Andrea Masi in the Wasps academy and former teammate Jimmy Gopperth for local side Nuneaton Old Edwardians, as well as learning from Dai Young, aligning both his playing and his coaching duties is something Johnson is excited about and the 34-year-old is also keen to formulate some of his own ideas.
Johnson said: “It has been great to learn from all these guys and see their ideas, philosophies and the way they think about rugby. The one thing about Dai that I liked was his demeaner, especially off the field. How calm he can be and the way he shields his players and the way he fights for his players is something I really want to do when I go into coaching.
“He will take all the pressure and everything off the players. He will let you know, internally! Seriously though, that protecting of his players is really something I have got time for because it allows you as team to just go out there and play. Everyone needs to find themselves as a coach and this is what I have been doing the last couple of years with local teams, to understand what type of coach you want to be. I will still be learning, but I am looking forward to it.”
Johnson may well be stepping into the third tier of English rugby, but he knows that coaching and playing in National One won’t be a walk in the park.
Having experienced the club system in South Africa, Johnson is aware of the values of the grassroots game and he hopes he can help Moseley’s players take the next step.
“National One is a really good level to start your coaching career,” said Johnson. “It is a tough league, don’t get me wrong!! I don’t think it is a tough league, I know it is a tough league because you do have to play 30 games, home and away and you are travelling across the country. Don’t get me wrong, I know exactly what I am letting myself in for but it is a great opportunity which I have.
“I will try and be as professional as possible and show them I am not going to coach them as a National One team, I am definitely going to put pressure on them and tell them what standards they need to be at if they are to progress in the game because there is talent in this league and in this squad.
“If they take it on board, we will have the guys that will hopefully make it and if we can grow as a club and maybe even get into the Champ in the next couple of years, then we, as Moseley, can keep getting better.”
So when Johnson speaks about ‘luck’ at the beginning of our conversation, yes, perhaps all teams will need a slice of fortunate when the new season does begin but for one of Wasps’ most experienced players, it is clear that his expertise, knowledge and hunger to succeed will shine through for Moseley rather than any so-called ‘luck’ which he thinks brought him to National One.