Alex Johnston has had some big footsteps to follow since his first-grade debut, and he may even go one step better.
Debuting on ANZAC Day in 2014, Johnston stole headlines in the lead up to his debut, with coach Michael Maguire dropping Rabbitohs club legend Nathan Merritt to reserve grade to fit Johnston into the side. His inclusion was justified, scoring a try in his maiden match as South Sydney ran out 28-26 winners over Brisbane. Johnston would continue his strong form throughout the season scoring 21 tries in 18 games, including the first try in South Sydney’s premiership victory.
The decision to drop the club’s all-time leading try scorer in Nathan Merritt wasn’t an easy choice for Michael Maguire, with many asking whether an uncapped 19-year-old was worth relishing a club legend to reserve grade for. Not only to Johnston begin to live up to Merritt’s legacy, there’s a chance he may soon surpass it.
Last season saw Johnston do one thing Merritt never accomplished in his career – playing for the Kangaroos. The youngster had obtained a green and gold jersey and a premiership ring within his first 26 games, things Merritt never achieved in his career. By the end of 2016, Johnston had scored 49 tries in 61 matches, at the age of just 21. It took Merritt 75 games to score his 49th career try, though Johnston and Merritt played in very different cultures. In his debut season, Alex Johnston would win 13 NRL games. Meanwhile, it took Merritt four seasons to reach his 13th win, splitting his early career between the Rabbitohs and Cronulla.
One thing that could hinder Johnston in his pursuit to become the club’s all-time top try scorer is a possible position switch, with Johnston admitting he’d like to switch to fullback, a position he played during his junior football. The move to fullback would see Johnston in more an assisting role than a scoring one, with ‘AJ’ only scoring one try in 8 games at the back. With Greg Inglis recently re-signing to the end of the 2020 season and Johnston off-contract at the end of 2017, Johnston may need to move teams to chase his chance in the custodian role.
Johnston will continue his combination with centre Hymel Hunt on South Sydney’s right edge in 2017, kicking off their campaign on Friday, March 3rd in a grudge match against the Wests Tigers.