Writing about the age-grades in rugby tends to follow a similar structure most seasons.
At the U18 level, dedicated fans may know of a handful of players coming through at their club, province or region, but their knowledge of talents from other teams or nations is minimal. This is the beginning of the spotlight-shining process.
By the time players make it to U20 level, they are beginning to get a bit of a reputation and the culmination of that age-grade representation tends to come at the annual World Rugby U20 Championship, where certain players will single themselves out as stars of the future.
What is rare, however, is for a player to be coming into U18 rugby and already have a sizeable amount of fans sitting on their edge of their seats, wondering if he can be the next big thing to grace the game.
That is the situation that confronts Tyrese Johnson-Fisher.
Recognise the name?
Johnson-Fisher shot to fame a couple of years ago when a video of his try-scoring exploits in the NatWest Schools Cup for Oakham U15s went viral.
And when we say it went viral, it went VIRAL.
People from all across the globe, rugby and non-rugby fans alike, were sharing the video and watching in amazement as the young back scorched defender after defender and made the game look remarkably easy.
The dark side to early fame like this, is that it can go to a player’s head and derail their careers before they even get off the ground. When combined with over-eager claims that Johnson-Fisher was a future star and an England player in the waiting, it would’ve been easy, as a teenager, for him to take his eye off the prize and his foot off the gas.
Thankfully, Johnson-Fisher hasn’t embraced that kind of complacency and he is a young man with his head well and truly screwed on.
After taking a short break from rugby to focus on his sprinting – he posted a PB of 10.72 over 100m last year – Johnson-Fisher is back in the sport and ready to make an impact for both Oakham and Leicester Tigers U18 sides, as well as hopefully pushing a claim for England U18 selection.
In fact, to put that 100m time into context, it is only 1/100th of a second slower than the time recorded by senior England flyer Jonny May. Neither England fans nor Conrad Smith will need reminding of what that pure pace – and more importantly, short-area acceleration – can do on the rugby pitch.
That kind of speed is hard to find in the sport – even in today’s era of freakish athletes – and it served Johnson-Fisher well in his recent time with the Jamaican Men’s 7s team.
It’s not only the speed that stands out, but also the power he generates as a result of it and the footwork that leaves defenders for dead. With today’s rugby players faster and stronger than ever before, that explosiveness and ability to beat men in one-on-one situations has never been more valuable.
They are attributes which can make Johnson-Fisher as potent in the 15-a-side game as he is in sevens.
He has spent the most recent part of the summer touring South Africa with Oakham, notching impressive victories over local schools, an experience that will undoubtedly serve him well in early 2018, when the Premiership U18 league and school competitions come to the fore of the rugby calendar.
Both competitions will give Johnson-Fisher an opportunity to display the technical skill that he has and reinforce his credentials as a complete rugby player, rather than just an extraordinary athlete.
He will hope to make an impact in the midfield for Oakham, whilst a berth on the wing for Tigers seems most likely at this point. It’s a great combination to have and should help round him out as a rugby player, playing multiple positions and being asked to shoulder different responsibilities across the two roles.
Dealing with high balls – he is also an adept long jumper – and working on his kicking game in the back three will turn him into a much more balanced centre, should he ultimately end up in the midfield. You only need to look at the cross-positional skills that the likes of Elliot Daly and Jordie Barrett have to see what a benefit that can be at all levels of professional rugby.
He is also just the kind of player that the Leicester academy has been crying out for, having seen talented young backs Jacob Umaga and Paolo Odogwu leave the set-up in recent years, as well as the likes of Alex Lewington and Perry Humphreys blossom after opting for pastures new.
Leicester scored the third least points and third least tries in the U18 League last season – with only Yorkshire Carnegie and Newcastle Falcons posting lower tallies – and it was something that saw the club miss out on Finals Day and record just one win in their six games.
Of course, winning games comes a significant second at this level to player development and that’s exactly what academy coach and former England and Leicester centre Anthony Allen will hope to work on with Johnson-Fisher this season.
The physical skills, attacking explosiveness and mentality all seem to be in place for the young man and with Allen, who was so responsible in his defensive and support work as a player, mentoring him in the Leicester academy, the future certainly seem bright.
If you’re a Leicester fan, it will be well worth taking in an U18 game or two this season and getting a look at Johnson-Fisher.
His viral video and raw potential is not going to make him a star, but if he continues working hard and stays as remarkably grounded as he is given his fast-rising profile, Leicester could be onto something special here.
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