From Paddington pub to Ellis Park: Johnson-Holmes' journey to a potential Test debut

The Rugby Championship
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Harry Johnson-Holmes was just about to tuck into an $8 schnitty at Sydney's Lord Dudley Hotel on Tuesday, when he noticed some, ultimately, significant missed calls on his phone.

When he returned the call, Johnson-Holmes was somewhat surprised to hear Wallabies coach Michael Cheika on the phone, telling him to pack his bags and travel to South Africa.

" A couple of days ago I was just finished Sydney Uni training, sitting down for $8 schnitty at the Lord Dudley hotel with my roommate, sat down, had a few missed calls, few messages here and there," he said on Thursday.

"Ended up calling a number I didn't have saved and it turned out to be Cheik.

"He told me to put down my knife and fork, stop eating the schnitties, get packed and get ready to come over and here I am."

In  the early hours of Thursday morning (AEST), Johnson-Holmes was on the ground in South Africa and less than a day later, he was named in his first Wallabies squad.

Johnson-Holmes had an inkling that he was in the frame based on Cheika's phone call but he said the whole experience was so frantic, he wasn't sure if he had concocted that part of the conversation in his own mind.

"He mentioned it on the phone and it was so hectic at the time, I wasn't sure what i had and what I had misheard and whether it's a fragment of my imagination but he mentioned it on the phone so I was like, "I think I'm on the bench", I'm still not sure if that's true," he said.

Johnson-Holmes had been training with the Wallabies' extended squad in Brisbane in recent weeks and Michael Cheika said he was confident the 22-year-old could step up in the Test arena.

"The guy was sitting at the Lord Dudley, I think he was having a steak when I rang him a night and a half ago and now he's here, he's going to play a Test match," Cheika said after naming his team on Thursday.

"I'm sure he's going to do us proud because the energy he brings, he's been in camp with us so he'll be really good as well.

"It's a great opportunity for a lot of guys and I think it's more based on what we need from this game and what we'd like to achieve out of this game."

While he is on the ground in South Africa now, Johnson-Holmes said he was still coming to terms with a whirlwind couple of days.

"It's all numb at the moment, still trying to figure it all out and I'm sure I'll only realise what's happening when I'm stepping on the field if that happens. For the moment, I'm just cruising and taking it as it comes," he said.

A trained singer, Johnson-Holmes joked he thought he might be asked to step in at anthem time as well as contribute on the footy field, but he might just have to settle for belting out Advance Australia Fair at Ellis Park.



"I was hoping they'd maybe get me up on the podium to do some official guest singing of it, lead the boys out with the microphone but it's looking less and less likely so I'll just have to sing as loudly as I can from the lineup," he laughed.

"It'll be very special, though, I've been very proud to get that opportunity and to be able to sing that national anthem along with some childhood heroes at a stage like Ellis Park, it's going to be pretty magical.

The Waratahs loosehead played 17 matches in 2018 but all of those caps were off the bench, something that shifted this season.

With Tom Robertson missing most of the Super Rugby season after a knee reconstruction, Johnson-Holmes had to step up and he did, playing 12 of his 16 matches as a starter.

Injury again opened the door for the Newcastle-born front rower to make a remarkable step up into Test rugby this week.

Johnson-Holmes' addition to the group came after three of the Wallabies' five props were ruled out of this weekend's Test with injury, in a horror run of luck for Australia.

Scott Sio (adductor) and Tom Robertson (ankle) were the first to be ruled out after both suffering injuries in training in the past week, while tighthead Allan Alaalatoa succumbed to a foot injury that he picked up during the end of the Super Rugby season.

Sio and Robertson have already flown home and both Sio and Alaalatoa are expected to be in the frame for the second Rugby Championship test against Argentina in Brisbane.

"He got it in Super Rugby so he's been struggling with it since he got in and we think that himself, probably two or three weeks," Cheika said of Alaalatoa's prognosis.

"Scott Sio again next week or the week after, Tom Robertson perhaps a little longer, just have to wait and see.

"We're lucky we've got some handy props running around so we've got good depth in that position and there's good opportunities for other guys to take their chance when it's given to them."

While the Wallabies do enjoy depth in their front row, Cheika still had to pick up the phone and bring over Harry Johnson-Holmes just four days before kick-off, leaving them with just four specialist props available in South Africa.

Cheika said the bad run of injuries hadn't affected their preparation much leading into a match against a tough Springboks pack.

"We’ve been fine...Allan hasn't scrummed, Scotty only on Saturday got a bit of a niggle and then Tom the other day, so we've been able to do everything," he said.

"That's footy, that's the way it goes.

"Harry's going to come in and he's going to have so much motivation and adrenaline.

Should there be any other front row injuries, hooker Tolu Latu could be an option to be called into another position in the front row, having played prop in his early Super Rugby days and in the NRC in recent seasons.

The Wallabies play South Africa in their Rugby Championship opener on Saturday July 20 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, kicking off at 5:05pm local, Sunday 1:05am AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and Kayo.