Justin Johnson – our league’s major partner talks to us

The JES Group Rugby League Conference is now reaching its half-way point for 2024 with three matches this weekend. Cynon Valley Cavaliers host South Wales Jets in a top of the table clash at the Welfare Ground in Hirwaun, Aberavon Fighting Irish take on South Wales Saints at Harlequins Field, Port Talbot, whilst Rhondda Outlaws face Torfaen Tigers at Glyncoch. All games kick-off at 2.30pm.

The J in the sponsors’ name stands for Johnson as the JES Group was founded by Viv Johnson in 1982 after he was made redundant from British Steel, with a small workshop of eight men at a facility in Taibach. Now they have over 85 employees working in a number of fields like pipefitting, welding, rigging and steel erecting. They have a number of customers like Petro Chemical, Welsh Water and Paper Mills, and they also have a training system for young people – The JES Academy.

Viv’s son Justin Johnson, who was just six years old when his dad founded the company. He started working in the Port Talbot Steelworks when he was 14 years old and was eventually made a director of the JES Group in 2017.

So why did he make the decision for the JES Group to sponsor the domestic Welsh Rugby League competition that’s now in its 21st season?

Justin explains: “I’ve always loved rugby league. This opportunity came up, I met Richard Hibbard and the fact that it was local players playing for local teams, I felt it was something I wanted to get involved with. I went to watch Aberavon Fighting Irish last week and it was fantastic to watch, I loved it.

“I’ve become a bit frustrated with rugby union and this is a breath of fresh air. It’s a summer sport so the running is good, it’s entertaining, gritty and real. I’ll watch a few more games when I can and I’m looking forward to being at finals day at The Gnoll on Sunday 18 August.”

It’s not quite a random involvement for Justin. Similar to how he’s grown up with his profession, he has concurrently grown up with rugby league, even playing and scoring tries for Wales in the Student World Cup.

He explains: “My father played rugby league for Aberavon RLFC in the 1980s in old MASWARLA Leagues as his friend and my godfather Kerry Sheehy started the team. I used to watch him and we watched rugby league on TV all the time.

“Then when I was 17, I also started playing for Aberavon RLFC in the final few years of that club. I was playing rugby union for British Steel Youth and I started playing rugby league in the summer and loved it.”

Just after his 20th birthday, Justin was selected for Wales Students for the 1996 Student World Cup that was held in England.

PIC – The Wales 1996 Student World Cup side. Justin is in the front row on the very end on the right as we’re looking at the photo.

“I qualified because I was in college once a week learning welding,” Justin said. “It was a fantastic experience and I loved every minute of it but I felt it took two or three games before I was really welcomed. There were a lot of players there from Cardiff Institute there and because I came in without playing for a college or university, I was an outsider and it took a while to win them round, but I soon made friends and it was fantastic. We stayed in the university in Sheffield and we met some Samoans and Kiwis there and we learned the difference in cultures – it was a great experience.”

Wales lost all three of their group games in the 1996 Student World Cup, including an opening defeat to eventual champions Australia, but because of the format of the competition, all 12 teams played the same number of games and Wales ended up entering and winning the “Plate” with Justin being named man of the match in the semi-final against USA after coming off the bench to score two tries. He followed that up with another try in their Plate Final win over Ireland.

“I wasn’t even on the bench for the first game against Australia,” Justin adds. “But the captain got injured and I played every game from then. It was something I’ll never forget, I got to play at Odsal in Bradford and at Central Park, the old Wigan stadium, it was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Justin then concentrated on his career with the JES Group which last year, with parallels to how Wales Rugby League are developing youngsters, made the decision to form The JES Academy.

He explains: “Last year, my brother in law, who works with me, had the idea to build a workshop where we can put apprentices in. We had a few workers coming near to retirement and knew that they all didn’t want to be in the house all day, so we decided to give them a few days a week so they could teach our apprentices.

“I want to give these youngsters a good apprenticeship and give them the knowledge that these men in their 60s have. I want people to know that there was somewhere in Port Talbot where youngsters could learn a trade free of charge. We’re getting a lot of funding for this, it’s been spoken about in parliament, we’ve workshops, classrooms, a handful of instructors, it’s getting bigger all the time and the goal is to build a facility where 120 youngsters can be learning a trade at the same time.”

Despite concentrating on the family business, it wasn’t the end of Justin’s rugby league career. In 2003, he played alongside the current WRL chief executive Richard Hibbard for Aberavon Fighting Irish and Justin has kept an eye on his progress ever since. The league itself was founded by Kerry’s brother Danny Sheehy along with WRL President Mike Nicholas.

“I played about four or five games in that first season,” he said. “Chris O’Callaghan was involved and there were a lot of first class rugby union players in the side and the standard was very high. It was probably a bit out of my league by that time as I’d lost weight and I didn’t have the strength I used to have.”

Aberavon reached the final of that first competition as they did last year, but unlike in 2003, Wales Rugby League now runs plenty of junior sides with over 2,000 youngsters playing, Justin being proud that his son is one of them.

“My son Louis plays for Aberavon Fighting Irish at youth level, so that’s three generations of Aberavon rugby league players now,” he said. The story continues.