To think Johnston was deemed not good enough to start for Souths at the beginning of the year. And good luck to Wayne Bennett picking his back line next season when Latrell Mitchell, James Roberts and Braidon Burns all return from injury to compete with Campbell Graham, Dane Gagai, Corey Allan and Steven Marsters for five spots.
While the potential for greatness looms on the horizon, Johnston is trying to keep his focus on the here and now, and helping Souths win their elimination final against Newcastle on Sunday.
“Making little goals each year is the way to go,” he said. “Getting to 212 tries by the end of my career would be awesome, but I can’t really say I’ll think that far ahead. A lot of good things would need to go my way to get there.
“My only goal at the start of the year was to reach 100 tries for Souths. And I knew if I was playing well and scoring tries, then it would help me get back into the starting side and hopefully land me a new contract. It’s all worked out.
“Hopefully I can get to Nathan Merritt’s [South Sydney] record [154 tries]. That would be a great milestone.
“Obviously the team goals are to win grand finals. Individually, I’d like to be one of the top try-scorers again, and that would put me up around the 20 tries each year if I’m aiming to be No.1. That’s a good goal to have each year.”
Manly great Steve Menzies is third on the all-time try-scorers list on 180. Of those still playing, Roosters flyer Brett Morris has 165 tries, but will retire at the end of next season, while Michael Jennings (154 before Parramatta’s finals clash with the Storm on Saturday night), Josh Morris (149), Jarrod Croker (132) and Blake Ferguson (115) are the only other players in front of Johnston, but are approaching the ends of their careers.
Johnston was told nearly 18 months ago by Souths he was free to find a new home. He spent the first two games of the year coming off the bench before he reclaimed his left wing spot after the COVID break as Roberts played catch-up with his fitness following a stint in a mental health facility.
When Johnston re-signed with the club last month, the reaction among his teammates was impossible to ignore as cheering echoed from the dressing room at Redfern Oval. So were the calls of “AJ” when Allan went to score a try against the Roosters last week, only for the players to realise another four-pointer for Johnston would help him reel in North Queensland’s Kyle Feldt as the season’s leading try-scorer.
Allan said this week of his selfless act: “We all knew AJ was up there with the top try-scorers. We wanted to get him that milestone – a milestone for him is a milestone for the team – and before I could put the ball down I heard everyone screaming his name. I gave the ball to him. Anyone else in my position would have passed the ball to him as well.”
Johnston grew up a St George Illawarra fan and enjoyed watching Jason Nightingale and Matt Cooper. He also singled out South Sydney greats Greg Inglis and Merritt as favourites.
Johnston worked out with one of the Rabbitohs’ fittestest players Damien Cook during the summer and made a point of not taking any game in the cardinal and myrtle for granted, especially given he was convinced his time at Redfern was about to be spectacularly cut short.
Most career tries
- 212 – Ken Irvine (North Sydney, Manly, 1958-1973)
- 190 – Billy Slater (Melbourne, 2003-2018)
- 180 – Steve Menzies (Manly, Northern Eagles, 1993-2008)
- 165 – Andrew Ettingshausen (Cronulla, 1983-200)
- 165 – Brett Morris (St George Illawarra, Canterbury, Sydney Roosters, 2006-present
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.