Skip to content

Hoping for rugger glory 'down under'

It might seem unlikely that someone born and raised in Yorkton might end up playing professional rugby in Australia, but Nolan Johnstone is hoping to write this rather unique story.

It might seem unlikely that someone born and raised in Yorkton might end up playing professional rugby in Australia, but Nolan Johnstone is hoping to write this rather unique story.

“I am currently in my first season of rugby league,” he explained to Yorkton This Week. “So I just started about five months ago.”

Johnstone, the youngest of five kids, only moved to Australia recently.

“I originally came to Australia in October 2012 as a working holiday with a friend from Yorkton to visit my sister and her husband who already live here in Sydney,” he said. “It was on that trip that I started working at a health club (gym) called Virgin Active which is where I met my wife Kayla. I still presently work at Virgin Active as a receptionist and duty manager.”

Once settled in Australia it was a natural for him to become involved in some form of athletics, given his past.

Johnstone, whose mother still resides in Yorkton, graduated in 2009 from YRHS, and before that attended elementary school at Yorkdale Central School where his dad was a teacher.

“In high school I won many provincial medals in track and field,” he said. “I placed sixth in the 100 metres final at nationals in 2006.

“I still hold the ECDAA district track and field record in the senior boys 400m with a time of 51.63 seconds. I was to be running at the University of Regina specializing in 400m until I was in a boating accident which broke my knee cap and elbow just before my first semester — which led me to travel instead of study. I made the YRHS senior basketball team in Grade 9, was a starter by grade 10, and finished in the top-15 in the schools all time history for points in a career.

“Grades 7-9 I attended spring training camps (Bison football camp one year put on by Jordan Matechuk) at the YRHS, but come fall time I always chose to enter in cross country instead, to help with my track and field, and due to my lack of size in high school.”

With a love of running, and some interest in football, rugby was a natural draw once in a country where it is hugely popular.

“The National Rugby League (NRL) is like Australia’s version of the National Football League,” offered Johnstone. “Last week there was a huge game called State of Origin where two teams Queensland and New South Wales, which are made up of NRL all-stars and split onto those teams based on where they were born (QLD or NSW) play a best of three series every year. Last week was game two and had a record setting crowd of 91,500. That’s more people than attended the Super Bowl last year in Phoenix.”

Johnstone said in Australia rugby is commonly played by everyone.

“Every guy and his ‘mate’ either play on a rec team, or used to play at some point,” he said. “The one thing keeping the NRL from being even bigger, is that there’s a few different types of ‘rugby’. The NRL is a sport called Rugby League, and commonly just referred to as League. There’s then a league called Super Rugby, which plays the sport of rugby union, and is commonly referred to as just Rugby.

“There’s then AFL which is Australian Rules Football League, and it is the most confusing sport known to mankind. Like a mix of rugby, ultimate frisbee, basketball, and soccer.”

In his case, Johnstone said a friend initiated him into rugby.

“I was first introduced to the game by a friend who told me all about this beastly player named Sonny Bill Williams, so I started following his team at the time the Sydney Roosters,” he said.

And that lead him to hit the field as an athlete.

“I play in a league against the universities here in Sydney,” he said. “I was invited down to practice with this team, the Norwest Polecats — I’m not sure what a polecat is — by a co-worker and PT at my gym. It’s the perfect level of competition for me to learn the game at, but still be able to score tries (touchdowns) by just using athleticism.”

Johnstone said he immediately loved the game.

“My favourite thing about playing League is the speed and the pace,” said. “There’s no stop/start like in American football, it’s just constantly moving, and I find that benefits me a lot.

“I also love the challenge of learning a whole new game.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy to pick up a new sport.

“The hardest part about it is remembering to not play football,” offered Johnstone. “My instincts are to run to the sidelines out of bounds to avoid being hit, but if you run out of bounds in league, you turn the ball over to the other team. But now that I’ve been playing it for six-months or so that kind of thing goes away.”

The experience was enough to have Johnstone start dreaming.

“As soon as I saw my first ever NRL match I started thinking ‘you know what? I bet I could outrun nearly all of these guys’,” he said.

“Just to be sure they weren’t faster than they looked, I started searching everywhere on the internet to see if I could find some numbers to represent their speed. Sure enough, a few years ago, Usain Bolt and Gatorade hosted a special invitational 100m race on a real track with starting blocks and spikes and everything called ‘the fastest man in footy’ which featured the fastest guys from the NRL, along with a few AFL and soccer guys. The fastest NRL time was recorded by Jarryd Hayne at 11.20 seconds. Hayne is a former NRL all-star who is now competing for a spot on the San Francisco 49ers roster in the NFL.

“That was over two-years ago — that I watched my first game — and I’ve been training relentlessly in the gym to put on size and strength to go with my speed. I knew I would have the ball skills from playing basketball, and I had the speed for sure, having run 11.22 in the 100m. But in high school I was all of about 155-pounds soaking wet. Now that I’m up at about 188 lbs, I’ve finally got some size to go with my speed.”

When a reality show was announced with the prize being a NRL contract Johnstone felt he was a good candidate given his expanding skill set.

“I first heard about the competition through my brother-in-law’s friend,” he said. “I showed him some videos of me training and mentioned I was in my first season of League and he said I should enter the NRL’s rookie show.

“And I instantly knew this was my chance to get noticed. The thing about rugby league here is that because everybody plays it. You generally have to start at a young age, play your junior rugby for certain clubs, and make your way up that way. It’s extremely hard for an outsider like me, starting rugby league at 23-years-old, to get noticed, even if I might be better than some guys already in the NRL.”

There was over 1200 applicants for the show.

“My application was selected, and I was invited to the final trials of just 200 people where we were put through various physical tests, and also a filmed interview with the executive producers who are making the show,” said Johnstone.

The process has already put Johnstone’s face out there in terms of being a rugby player.

“I’ve been getting great exposure. NRL Rookie shared my video application on their Facebook and it has over 22,000 views. They also showed my application on a weekly NRL talk show called ‘The Footy Show’. I purposely played up the parts they would like in my back story, that there’s never been a Canadian born player in the NRL, and I come from a gridiron (football) background which means I’m trying to do the opposite of their superstar Jarryd Hayne who went from rugby league to American football.”

So Johnstone will hopefully be pursuing his rugby dream in front on tens of thousands of TV viewers.

“The show will be a 10-week long program,” he said. “They’ve kept the details very secret at this point. We’re not sure yet how many guys will be living in the house competing on it yet.

“But it will be like an Ultimate Fighter type show where we’re all in the house living together, training together, and hopefully not getting eliminated. The winner gets a guaranteed NRL contract.

“It will be coached by Brad Fittler who is an Australian rugby league legend, who played for the Sydney roosters in the NRL, but also represented his country on a national level as an Australia Kangaroo many times.”

As for whether he will get the break he hopes, Johnstone awaits word himself.

“I should know if I’m selected to be on the show in the next few weeks, as filming is set to commence in mid-August, and the show is set to air early next year,” he said.

The show will be airing sometime early next year 2016 on free to air TV in Australia on Channel 9 (“it’s crazy, if you have a TV here, you plug it in, and you get about 50 channels for free! I love it,” said Johnstone).

“So everybody in Australia will be watching.”

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks