Alex Johnston - PNG
Can you introduce yourself and your rugby journey?
My name is Alex Johnston. I am 27 and I play on the wing for the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the NRL and play at fullback for the PNG Kumuls.
My professional career started in 2014 at the age of 19. I was lucky enough to win the NRL Grand Final in my first year. Since then, I have represented both Australia and Papua New Guinea. In 2019 I made my debut for PNG after missing opportunities to represent them in earlier years due to injury.
My injuries have included tearing both hamstrings, quad strains, cartilage tears in my knees and most recently a hip flexor strain making me unavailable to play in the 2022 Preliminary Final. As an athlete, injuries are the lowest point in your career, as it seems like your purpose has been taken away and all you can do is watch your teammates. I have played nine seasons in the NRL and despite the injuries, I am now the Rabbitohs all-time leading try-scorer which is a huge honour.
What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with any of the photos?
Most of the photos were taken during the 2022 NRL season leading up to the Rugby League World Cup - they show my journey to try and win the NRL competition with my South Sydney teammates.
I also showed a team camp on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. It was nearing the end of a long season and we all travelled away for a week together to bond and build team chemistry before the final push to the Finals. I won the team Poker night which was the first time I ever played half decently! I should have bought a lotto ticket with my luck.
You can see also a fan day for South Sydney, when PNG fans came with a jersey that they wanted to sign. Our fans are everywhere in Australia and very passionate.
I also showed my PNG Kumuls teammates celebrating a big win in our mid-year Test Match against Fiji. We were heavy underdogs, but we believed in ourselves and pulled off a great win for the country.
It was David Meade’s last game ever for PNG. He was captain for a long time and one of PNG’s greatest ever players, so to play with him in his last game for the country was an honour. To get such a great win for him as well was incredible.
Are there any stories connected with the people you photographed?
The lowest point of the year was when my beautiful Nanna Mary Brown passed away. She is where I get my PNG heritage from, so I made the decision to play for PNG in the Rugby League World Cup no matter what and to dedicate every minute to her. She was my biggest supporter and came to every home game that she could. And after every game, no matter what, she would give me the biggest hug and told me I did well, even if I had not.
She was always the loudest voice on the sideline at my games growing up. “Get off my grandson”, I would hear every time I got tackled. She would threaten to come on the field and get whoever she saw hurt me. Throughout my professional career, even though I could not hear her amongst the crowd, she still did her part and made sure the opposition would “get off her grandson”. I am sure she is still protecting me today.
What does rugby league and playing for PNG mean to you?
Rugby league is my passion, so to do it as a job is a dream come true. And to represent my heritage, where my Nanna was born and raised, is a huge honour. Playing in her memory gives me the ultimate joy.
Even if I had been selected to play for Australia this year, I would have turned them down to play for PNG at this World Cup. During the mid-year Test, there was plenty emotion for my family. I told the playing group and coaching staff that I would play for PNG over Australia, due to how much it means to me to put on that Kumuls jersey with respect to my late grandmother.
What role does rugby league play in your community and country?
Rugby League in Papua New Guinea is EVERYTHING! Putting on the Kumuls jersey, you become the pride of the nation and is what most boys in the country dream of achieving. The whole nation stops and watches every game the Kumuls play. You can see why PNG is the only country with rugby league as its national sport. When the Kumuls win, PNG wins!
What ambitions do you have for the future?
I have ambitions to play rugby league in the NRL for as long as I can and continue to break as many try-scoring records as possible. I want to leave a legacy in the game but also leave my family in a great position for when I retire. After retirement I would love to be involved in the game still in some manner, as a coach, mentor, or even helping a team in a social media role.
What do you think the future looks like for rugby league after the RLWC? Why might the future be exciting?
The future of Rugby League is very exciting as the game gains more exposure and grows globally. Other nations, in particular Pacific Island Nations, are closing the gap between themselves and the big three (Australia, New Zealand, and England) and this World Cup will be interesting to see if there are new rugby league power houses emerging. Hopefully this exposure helps the game gain more traction in other countries where big money can roll in and the game provides an opportunity to change people's lives.