The New England Free Jacks has Joe Johnston returning for the first year of his two-year contract, through the 2023 Major League Rugby season. The 23-year-old back-row (24 in January) is 6’2″ and 225 lbs.
Joe started in 14 matches for the Free Jacks in 2021. Defensively, he made 187 tackles, had 13 breakdown steals, and ranked third and second respectively across the league. “His considerable defensive presence had the ability to turn games and create opportunities for counterattack across the field.” He concluded the season with 26 tackle breaks, earned 625 meters from 102 carries, and scored 3 tries.
Joe is Whakatane, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, but is eligible to play for the United States through his mother, who was born and raised in Boston.
He attended Kings College during his last two years of high school in 2015 and 2016 and helped the Auckland Boys’ School to a top-four national finish in 2015 and captained the side in his final year.
Johnston’s performances placed him on the national radar and in 2016 he was selected to the New Zealand Schools Barbarians side, which he captained in the Trans-Tasman shield competition, which was coached by incoming Free Jacks Head Coach, Ryan Martin. The Barbarians side went undefeated, knocking over both Australian and Fijian Schools in the process.
Joe captained the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Under 19s squad in 2017. This led to his signing his first professional contract with Bay of Plenty for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He has only made a single appearance for ‘the Bay’ to date coming off the bench in the side’s 46-10 win over Manawatu, but can be expected to see more valuable game time in the current season.
Johnston said it was always his intention to return home to the Bay of Plenty. “I never really saw myself going anywhere else really. I always saw myself going to Auckland and then coming back home. It is nice and familiar here, I know a lot of people here and it’s close to home.”
Johnston signed for the China Lions for the 2020 season, a side formed as a joint venture between Bay of Plenty and China Rugby Football Association that competes in Global Rapid Rugby. The season ended prematurely due to Covid-19, however, Joe had an outstanding performance in the back row in a 29-22 win over Fijian Latui at ANZ Stadium in Fiji.
Joe was honored in 2019 with the Ngāwhā Player of the Year Award.
New England Free Jacks Comments
The Outstanding Loose Forward, “The Mechanic’, is Eligible to Play for the United States Through Johnston’s Mother
Off the field, Johnston grew into a strong leader and earned the appointment of interim captain late in the season in the absence of team captain Josh Larsen.
“Joe is highly respected by his teammates and leads by example week-in week-out,” said Free Jacks Performance Manager, Tom Kindley. “His game sense and physicality make him a menace on both sides of the ball which can be seen in his numbers.”
“Joe ‘The Mechanic’ Johnston proved a form flanker within MLR during the 2021 season, expressing a tireless style of play that quickly resonated with Free Jacks fans. We are looking forward to seeing Joe continue to grow and add tools in our environment where we are sure his game will go to yet another level.”
Prior to the 2021 season, he said “I’m really excited to be heading over to the New England Free Jacks,” said Johnston. “Boston is where my Mum grew up and where my Dad, who’s a kiwi, spent some time playing for Beacon Hill Rugby Club. I’m looking forward to meeting distant family and friends from Boston and fully immersing myself in the culture of the team.”