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Toulouse and Samoa legend Johnston driving a new generation of Black Ferns

By Adam Julian
Toulouse's players Romain Millo Chlusky (R) and Census Jonhston (C) celebrate, on June 2, 2012, after their team won 24-15 the Top 14 rugby match semi-final, Toulouse-Castres, in Toulouse's stadium.AFP PHOTO/ REMY GABALDA (REMY GABALDA/AFP/GettyImages)

Domestically, and in less than six months, the Black Ferns Rugby World Cup (2022) winning front row of Pip Love, Georgia Ponsonby and Amy Rule have been taken down twice by relative Auckland novices.


On September 9, 2023, at Rugby Park in Christchurch, Auckland beat Canterbury 39-27 in the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) Premiership final.

Auckland props Sophie Fisher and Chryss Viliko earned their Black Ferns debuts shortly after that result.

Rule suffered her maiden loss in 30 matches for Canterbury. Love and Ponsonby tasted defeat in a decider for the first time. Canterbury won finals from 2017 to 2019 and again in 2022.

On Saturday the Blues, last in Super Rugby Aupiki 2023, toppled defending champions Matatu (24-17) in the opening round of the 2024 competition at Rugby Park, Invercargill. Again, Fisher and Viliko had the measure of their formidable opponents.

Census Johnston might be the not-so-secret weapon giving Auckland and the Blues the edge. He is a forwards coach for both the franchise and province. At the peak of his playing career, the mammoth prop stood 6 ft 3 and 137 kg.

Johnston cuts a slenderer figure these days but remains conspicuous. He radiates natural charm and worldliness that comes after 17 years in France and 60 Tests for Samoa, including three Rugby World Cup campaigns.


He officially retired in 2022 returning to Auckland with his three daughters. He wants to be closer to his family, “give back to the community” and “clean his AirBnB’s.” The chance to coach women has been novel and illuminating.

“It’s been a good experience. Women are different learners. They’re very detailed and ask a lot of questions,” Johnston said.

“It’s exciting because you have to have a reason for everything you do and that challenges your thinking as a coach.”

“With Auckland last year I kind of knew we were going to win the final. We built confidence and momentum that allowed the girls to express themselves. The growth was massive. It wasn’t dissimilar to winning teams I’ve been part of. A lot of the women’s game is about getting the mental side right.”


Fisher and Viliko are contrasting players. Loosehead Viliko is a converted loose forward with natural size, power, and athleticism.

“Chryss is a special talent who I expect will be around for a long time. She has a good attitude and a big engine. She can play 80 minutes. Her carry is very good,” Johnston said.

Tighthead Fisher has migrated inwards from lock. Her broad shoulders and greater height make her difficult to outmuscle in the scrum. She has thrived alongside Viliko.

“We’ve been playing together for three years now and have become best of mates. Our connection is an honest and caring one. We give feedback to each other and have a strong chemistry,” Fisher said in 2023.

“I’ve improved my carry by bettering my footwork, finding weak shoulders and just being more mobile.”

Johnston was born on the day of a census, May 6, 1981, in Waitakere. He grew up playing rugby league in West Auckland. When his father died and his mother moved to Australia, Johnston was forced to leave school without any qualifications and work. He was spotted playing rugby at Waitemata by a teacher at Avondale College.

“I went back to school on a scholarship. Talk about being in the right place at the right time,” Johnston said.

“My time at Avondale College is what got me into rugby. I started as a loose forward, but they reckoned my size was better suited to prop.

“When I left school, I was in the Auckland Academy struggling to crack it. I even got dropped from Auckland B, so I went to the Mount Albert Lions to play league. [Brian] ‘Bluey’ McClennan was the coach. We won the Fox Memorial final, and I scored the winning try.

“On Monday I was summoned to a please explain meeting at Auckland Rugby. They basically read me the riot act but all I was getting was a bit of kit.

“The next thing they had a propping crisis, so I was flown down to Invercargill to play in the NPC side against Southland. After that, I was dropped again.”


McClennan, now the Kiwis coach, tried to persuade Johnston to join the NRL in Australia. He had played internationally for Samoa. Instead, Johnston shifted to Taranaki where he was coached by Kieran Crowley and Neil Barnes. His big break came on November 26, 2005.

“I had a solid NPC and was picked for Samoa. We played England at Twickenham, and I gave Andrew Sheridan who was a big deal at the time a torrid working over,” Johnston said.

“After that game, I had offers on the table from everywhere. I chose to go to France to do enough to play Super Rugby. I ended up staying in France for 17 years.”

“I hated every part of it. A tighthead prop was only supposed to scrum; I ran,” Johnston recalled of his introduction to the Top 14 with Biarritz in 2005.

While Johnston quickly became a cult hero with his damaging runs and big hits, better scrum technique and durability would be required longer term. Still, Biarritz won the Top 14 championship in 2006 smashing Toulouse 40-13 in the final.

“It was amazing I went from nothing to making 7,000 euros a week. In the dressing room, the chairman handed all the players an envelope. I thought it might be a thank you card. It was 10,000 euros per player,” Johnston reflected.

Biarritz offered Johnston a contract extension with no terms. Other parties were chasing hard. Saracens landed their man when the CEO flew to Australia to meet Johnston while he was playing for Samoa.

“They offered all sorts. I’d throw things out there and they said, ‘Yep we can do that,’ Johnston laughed.

“Eddie Jones was my coach at Saracens. Sure, Eddie was intense, but he understood the Island boys and was the first coach who told me I could be the best in the world. He was so thorough and grew that appetite to scrummage.”

When the South African investors bankrolling Saracens went bust in 2009, Johnston’s time was up in England. He returned to France. At Toulouse, his legend was born.

Johnston played 222 matches for ‘Les Rouge et Noir’ until 2017. In 2010 Toulouse ironically beat Biarritz 21-19 in the European Champions Cup final.

“Toulouse was where I experienced authentic French rugby and culture. There weren’t many foreigners; I had to learn the language and adapt more to the style of play,” Johnston mused.

“Set piece dominance is everything in France, you can’t get by without it. Every week was like a test match. I grew a real love for close-quarter battles. Remove that and you remove the essence of the game.

“The toughest opponents in the scrum were the Georgians. You’d start a fight with them to get under their skin. Mikheil Nariashvilli was a classic, a fierce opponent. He’d pull your leg, and I’d say, ‘Not today bro.’

“We were box office on those Sunday night games at nine pm. Nothing else was on.”

Proof of his box office appeal occurs when our meeting at Everyday Coffee in Sandringham is suddenly interrupted by a friendly French tourist.

Gildas Guerlais explains he supports Toulouse and loves New Zealand’s nature and rugby culture. While in Gisborne he turned up to Ian Kirkpatrick’s house only to discover he wasn’t home. Kirky’s wife invited Gildas back the next day to watch the Rugby World Cup final with the former All Blacks captain and World Rugby Hall of Fame legend.

The 2011 Top 14 final was won by Toulouse over Montpellier 15-10. Johnston derived even more joy from the 2012 victory over Toulon. Former All Black Luke McAlister kicked six penalties from six attempts while Johnny Wilkinson, who scored 1,884 points for Toulon, was off target with two of his penalties.

“After Toulon beat us up in the regular season, we had a metal scrum machine built by Air Bus. We hit that thing so had we smashed it,” Johnston revealed.

“Toulon is an intimidating place to go. The crowd is close to the action and on top of you. They throw newspapers and hurl abuse. It’s like modern-day gladiators.”

In 2013 Johnston had his infamous dust-up with Springboks enforcer Bakkies Botha (85 Tests, 64 wins).

“Avoir des couilles” Johnston quips to Guerlais. The Frenchman laughs and responds the same way. An inquiry into the meaning of that phrase leads to a polite explanation about the need to stand up for yourself and have courage.

Samoa Rugby was riddled with incompetent governance throughout Johnston’s career. That didn’t stop the big man from being a part of some extraordinary victories.

In 2011 Samoa stunned Australia 32-23 in Sydney. Who could ever forget the ‘tunnel ball’ between the legs pass from Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua to winger Alesana Tuilaga for his runaway try?

At Rugby World Cup 2011, Samoa beat Fiji 27-7 at Eden Park. At the time the official crowd of 60,327 was the second largest attendance for any rugby match in New Zealand. Samoa blew a chance to make the quarterfinals after a poor display against Wales in Hamilton.

In 2012, two-time Black Ferns World Cup-winning coach Darryl Suasua took over the reins. A best-ever world ranking of seventh was achieved following wins over Wales (26-19), Scotland (27-17), and Italy (39-10). Suasua went unpaid for a year and departed.

Fast forward to 2024 and Suasua has had coaching influence at Chiefs Manawa, the Blues second round Aupiki opponent. Last Saturday the Chiefs overpowered Hurricanes Poua 46-24 with Black Ferns forwards Luka Connor and Kennedy Simon each scoring two tries. Manawa fielded 14 Blacks Ferns with Ruby Tui also scoring an outstanding individual try.

The Blues haven’t beaten Chiefs Manawa in Aupiki but the character of their win against Matatu, the best in their short existence, suggests they have a shot at Bell Park in Pakuranga on Saturday.

Down 12-0 the Blues rallied to take the lead and seemed to have won the game when flanker Tafito Lafaele crashed over the line in the 78th minute.

However, Matatu regained possession after the restart and with the scoreboard clock showing 83:26 prop Moomooga Palu was held up under the posts as she thrust valiantly forward to score what almost certainly would have been a match-levelling try. Maia Ross (17), Krysten Cottrell (16), Maama Vaipulu (14), and Eloise Blackwell (14) were all ranked in the top five tacklers on the opening weekend.

“The best pastries around here boys? La Voie Française on Dominion Road,” Johnston laughs as he departs.


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