Suburbs lose leading star to rugby
Mark Johnston - "Mr Suburbs" - the leader of the region's top football team is an undeniable talent with the ball at his feet . . . but can he catch? More to the point, can he tackle a 110kg prop running down the inside channel?
After 13 years in the Nelson Suburbs' Mainland Premier League side, Johnston will change his cleats for sprigs. In a surprise move that will leave a "huge gap" in Nelson's playing ranks, Johnston has decided to give up football and play rugby.
Johnston spent four years playing football for Limestone College in the United States. He was the Suburbs' MPL captain for the last four seasons and is a former national league player with Canterbury. In 2013 he was the first captain of the Nelson Falcons and is the assistant coach of the national youth league franchise.
A life-long rugby fan, Johnston, 28, will now play for the "mighty Marist" side this season. The switch was always on the cards according to Johnston, whose father played representative rugby for the West Coast "back in the day".
"When I was 5 or 6, my dad said I could play soccer so I could get my kicking skills up for rugby," Johnston said. "He has always joked that I am still just playing football to get my kicking skills up, now it is going to be quite crucial that I can kick a ball."
The ploy worked. Able to kick well off either foot, Johnston hopes to play first five-eighths or fullback in rugby. Preseason is now underway and the code-hopper said he is enjoying the new challenges rugby presents.
"It is a bit weird, I'm used to being the experienced guy that has got all the skills," Johnston said. "Now I'm the new guy finding my way. It's not really a well-travelled path from football to rugby."
Having only played "a bit" at high school, Johnston has picked up tactical ability and positioning information from watching the rugby sides he supports; the Makos and Crusaders.
Although he brings an educated boot, the full contact will be a new element.
"I've had to do quite a lot of work in the gym, just to build that upper body strength you don't use a hell of a lot in football. I've had a personal trainer for the last six months and we have been into contact training straight away, so that was good fun.
"It's early days but I have transferable skills, a good fitness base and change of direction. I just have to keep working hard on the skills I have missed out on, but I am working on that outside of preseason."
An athletic central defender in football, Johnston's play was characterised by a physical, hard-edged approach. He was a fierce competitor and was almost unmatched in the air, even against taller opposition.
Fellow Nelson Suburbs player and the team's co-coach, Ben Wright, said the Players' Player of the Year for the past four seasons will be hard to replace for multiple reasons. However, Nelson Suburbs wishes one of their favourite sons all the best on his new endeavour.
"I know Johno and he is an intelligent lad. When he makes up his mind about something, you know you won't be able to change his mind," Wright said.
"We will miss him hugely, he is Mr Suburbs. We just wish him all the best."
Suburbs co-coach Paul Brydon, who made Johnston captain when he began coaching the side four years ago, believes Johnston still has a lot to offer football in the coming years.
"I don't think it is the end of his playing days, he just needs a break from the game," Brydon said. "He has had a lot of football over the last two or three years.
"He won't be lost to the game. He is coaching the Falcons along with Davor [Tavich] and they seem to be doing a good job."
Johnston, now qualified to senior level 2, will continue to coach football and Brydon hopes that if Johnston keeps active in the community, it won't be too long before he returns to the pitch.
"He has been such a key player for us, a great leader. To be honest, I can't remember him having a bad game, week-in, week-out he did the job for us.
"He is great player and great servant of the game and hopefully we will see him back in Suburbs' colours next year."
Johnston said that he wants to give rugby a serious nudge and he is committed to making Marist's top senior side this season. So, for now the only colour that Johnston will be wearing is green.