Bill Johnston will be hoping to make an impression against his former club, Munster, when Ulster make the trip to Limerick on Saturday for the first interprovincial derby of the season.
The 22-year-old is all too wary of the challenges that the imposing Thomond Park stadium presents but being familiar with the ground also holds him in good stead.
“I’ve never played as an opposition player at Thomond Park but it’s a beautiful ground,” he says. “The weather can play a big part there with heavy gusts blowing their own way in the stands, so that can be an issue for us as the opposition. The fans are nice and close to the pitch and hopefully it will be a big crowd for this weekend.
“It’s nice to go to a place you know pretty well; it’s a bit like a home game in terms of the dressing rooms not being new to me or the hotels or city, so it’s a little advantage for me I suppose.”
Johnston’s most prominent memory from Thomond Park was not as a player, but as a spectator following the death of Munster’s Head Coach, Anthony Foley.
“The game against Glasgow after Axel died sticks out most in the memory for me. I was high up in the stands, but I could feel the electricity from the crowd. It was very emotional for all of us but that was a special day to be there and witness it. I’ll never forget the energy that day; it was incredible.”
On his decision to join Ulster, the number of fly-halves at Munster meant his opportunities to play first team rugby were limited, so he felt it best for his development to make the move to Kingspan Stadium.
“If you look at Munster’s squad at the moment, Tyler Bleyendaal and JJ Hanrahan are exceptional players. I can never take that away from them and to have someone like Joey Carbery, you look at those three names and Johann van Graan (Munster’s Head Coach) has a tough job keeping them happy, never mind a fourth. If you look at it that way, I just had to step aside to go forward. Who knows how far forward that will be, but I’ve definitely felt that there has been that bit more room to grow and get stuck in at Ulster.”
The opportunity to play against his former Province is an enticing one for the Clonmel native, particularly as he has developed his game since moving north.
“Coming up here, it’s tough moving to the other end of the country; I would have known a lot of lads there and you’re in pretty fresh into a new environment at Ulster. Going through that as a person is great; I’ve made good strides in a rugby sense, tactically and skill-wise as well. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way against the Cheetahs and Zebre but they’re learning opportunities and I’m never going to run from them.”
He makes pains to stress however that this game is about more than him wanting to prove a point against Munster.
“The game is a lot bigger than me – there are 50-odd people in each training centre planning how they’re going to beat the opposition. It won’t be a personal thing for me; it will be about who is better prepared and who will execute their plan the best and win the game.”