Ashley Johnson has lifted the lid on how he positively coped with the mental trauma of his six months drug ban. The South African was suspended last year after mistakenly ingesting one of his wife’s fat-stripping tablets instead of his own legal supplement.
It’s an honour he never envisaged a year ago when plunged into despair after testing positive for hydrochlorothiazide. He was out in the cold, embarrassed by what had happened and left at a loose end.
He has strongly come through the ordeal, though, featuring 20 times this season for a club that even offered him a contract extension in December. Quite an endorsement for a player whose could have come out the other side of his ban a broken man.
“Mentally it was really tough. My mental health was challenged, so it was just awesome to be in a really good space to come back and perform at the level I know I can,” said Johnson to RugbyPass.
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“It’s a tough old situation. Mental health is something, especially from a rugby player’s point, that is being talked a lot. When you go away from the squad it’s a very lonely place and you have to deal with stuff on your own.
“The RPA [Rugby Players’ Association] was amazing, just to put a hand over my shoulder and make sure I knew what to do if I need to talk to someone. It was just about surrounding yourself with people who know who you are, friends that support you, positive reinforcement all the time. It’s just being around people.
— Wasps Rugby (@WaspsRugby) July 26, 2018
“I wanted to be away from everyone. I wanted to withdraw from the club, withdraw from all the players and they did the opposite. They all came and said, ‘Listen, come to the club whenever you can’. It was just being around the boys away from rugby because I obviously wasn’t allowed to be at the club for rugby.
“They said, ‘Listen, we can still go for a beer, you’re still part of this club, still one of our mates’. The boys were brilliant. They supported me so much. Even just a little text, a little hand on the shoulder.
“Then when I came back I wanted to do it for them. I wanted to be in a really good place where I could contribute and show them the same love and faith they showed me when I went through that difficult period.”
It was last September at Worcester when Johnson made his comeback. Nervous? You bet. “Yes, I was a bit nervy,” he recalled. “I’m not naturally confident but I have confidence in my own ability. Having been out of the game for a while it was always a bit of a gamble.
“I could have come back and really, really played badly, but I worked hard. It was a tough period. Six months to reflect on what happened, but it also gave me time to reflect on my career and actually realise I haven’t achieved anything with Wasps yet.
“There are some good memories (since 2012) and some great stuff, but the ban awakened something inside of me that I’m not done yet in my career, I’m not done yet at Wasps. That just fed my hunger.
“I want to do so much for this club. I owe so much to Dai (Young), owe so much to the boys who supported me during that difficult period. All I want to do is contribute in any way. Dai’s an amazing man, a great coach, but first and foremost he’s a guy that looks after the people off the field. He’s one of those coaches that wants to make sure that life off the field is good.
“His wife April is also amazing, just making sure my missus was handling the situation really well. He was really supportive, always trying to put a humorous spin on everything. It was great to have him in my corner. I would really go to the end of the world for him and do anything he asks because of the faith he has shown.
“I’m quite a loyal person. A lot of rugby players and clubs, it’s not about loyalty, but Wasps have been so loyal towards me, especially during that difficult period, that the least I could do when they offered a contract extension was to sign.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) March 24, 2019
“It would have been so easy to say, “Listen, I will go somewhere else”. But the club is amazing towards me. Since I came, Dai has been awesome and that trust is something you can’t get overnight. They trust me and I trust them. Not only Dai, but Derek (Richardson, the owner) and everyone at the club.”
Wasps, however, are enduring a spring-time slump. The loss of their last four matches has seen them drift to eighth on the table, a dozen points shy of the top-four cut-off. It means a win over Worcester next Saturday is an imperative.
“It’s a bit of a tough period but if you have got the right people around you, the right people trusting each other and still doing the right job, it has to turn sometime,” reckoned Johnson, now in his seventh season in England after earning his stripes at the South African Cheetahs. “With injuries and a lot of players away on internationals, it was unlucky we couldn’t pull all those close seven-point games into wins.”
Johnson was a willing contributor the other night when a Wasps delegation held a Gallagher Premiership Train with your Heroes session with the Kenilworth Ladies rugby team. Passing on advice is something he’s keen on doing at any level. “It’s important for senior players to be accessible. As a junior I found it quite difficult going up to the senior boys and saying, ‘Listen, how do you do it, tell me what the secret is?’
“You always get one or two really cocky juniors that come up and have that world of confidence, but 90 per cent are very much in their own bubble and very shy. From a senior perspective, I like to be accessible to these boys, just have a little bit of breakfast with them and not only sit at the senior’s table. The conversations can then start naturally.
“I don’t think I have got all the answers but if I can help guide those boys it would be just amazing because in a couple of years’ time they will be the next boys in the Gallagher Premiership. We want to grow strong and independent guys who will the next day be the future of England and of Wasps.”
— Wasps Community (@WaspsCommunity) March 27, 2019
The back row, who is also adept at playing hooker, is well versed in coaching, helping out Broadstreet RFC whose grounds Wasps use as their own training centre. He’s also a regular on the Barkers’ Butts sideline whenever his 10-year-old – one of his three boys – is playing.
Fully aware of the frequent talk surrounding player safety, he believes kids would benefit from learning all the skills they need for adult rugby at an earlier age rather than having certain aspects restricted until they are older.
“I have been at games where a kid gets his neck or shoulder hurt and it’s never nice. You can see the parent has their heart in their hand for a split second and he then gets up. I totally understand where everyone is coming from in terms of safety and that should be the No1 factor always.
“But at the same time, being a parent I also want my kid knowing the correct technique in terms of scrummaging, of tackling, of rucking and the longer you wait for that the shorter the amount time he has to own that skill before he turns 18 because in prolonging that trying to be safe they don’t risk the players more.
“As a parent I want my kid to be exposed more and be taught the right techniques earlier, so when he is 18 and it is full on and the boys are bigger, that he uses the right techniques. When everyone is grown it’s going to be the collisions that are going to be a bit more tougher.
“If they are only learning to tackle and ruck when they are 14 to 16, they only have a few years of growing in that skill whereas if they started doing it at 12 years old they will have a longer period of owning that skill.”
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