Why the NRL has seen the last of the old Shaun Johnson as he makes Warriors comeback

Sitting up there wearing the old colours and once again part of a club that never should have forced him out in the first place, he sure looked like the old Shaun Johnson.

It was his first day in front of the media since returning to the Warriors, and he sure sounded like the old Shaun Johnson as well.

“I got my kit bag in the car and I left quarantine, and the first thing I did when I got home was put my kit on and look at myself in the mirror, like it was my first day at school,” Johnson said.

“It was disbelief I was actually back, being able to wear this kit again and represent this club again.

“Coming in today and speaking to the boys, I don’t know what happened to me — I got a bit choked up, thinking of the journey I’ve been on and ending up right back here.”

You wouldn’t even need to squint to think this was the old Shaun Johnson; the highlight-reel Shaun Johnson, the Shaun Johnson who was forced to carry the footballing dreams of not just a suburb — like they do in Sydney — or a city — like they do in Brisbane — but of an entire nation.

The Sydney NRL landscape is a fishbowl filled with piranhas, but at least there’s other fish around. In New Zealand — when it comes to rugby league — there is just the Warriors, and for so long Johnson was their face in both good times and bad, and given this is the Warriors we’re talking about there were plenty of the latter.

A male NRL player runs with the ball in his right hand.
Johnson had three seasons with the Sharks between 2019 and 2021.(AAP: Craig Golding)

To Johnson’s credit, he never let that heavy burden weigh him down; not when he helped drive the club to the grand final in 2011, not when he lost years of his best football to their seemingly endless rebuilds, not even when they let him walk away at the end of 2018.

It would be so easy to be bitter about that last one. After years of struggles, the Warriors had finally returned to the finals, finishing eighth but just two points off first.

It was the best team Johnson had ever played on, one where Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Blake Green and Issac Luke could ease the pressure.

Despite a disappointing loss to Penrith in the first week of the 2018 finals, the pieces finally seemed to be fitting together, for Johnson and the Warriors. After years of rebuilding, they were built.

But these are the Warriors, and too often their greatest opponent proves to be themselves. Johnson was allowed to walk (something about money and age, and injuries and the future) and the Warriors went from the brink of something all the way back to the start of something else.

“At the time I didn’t think I needed to leave, or I should leave, or I wanted to leave, but I’ve always been one to make the most out of any situation you’re in, or try to find the silver lining,” Johnson said.

“It took a couple of months to realise I had a lot of growth to do — I’d been in the Warriors system since I was a kid. I didn’t know any other way.”

A Cronulla Sharks NRL player is carried from the field after injuring his Achilles tendon.
Injury marred Johnson’s time at the Sharks.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

So Johnson went to Cronulla, made the finals again as the Warriors crashed back into turmoil, and would have likely gone back there twice more if injuries did not end his season early two years in a row.

It was three good campaigns, stopped from being something more by circumstances Johnson himself could not control, and it changed him.

He returns to the Warriors a different player and a different man because he has a greater understanding of himself, on and off the field.

“Mentally, I’ve grown leaps and bounds from where I was three years back,” Johnson said.

“The application I’ve put into the mental side of the game, who I am as a person, who I am as a player and what my best performance looks like, I’ve had some real clarity over that.

“I’m still learning, it’s not like I’m the finished product — I’ve just seen how people approach performance and I truly believe I have a clearer picture of what it looks like for me, personally.

“Physically I’ve had a few struggles at times, but mentally my application and detail and understanding what winning football looks like is pretty clear.”

Johnson shapes as Warriors’ wise old man

It’s a good thing Johnson is quicker between the ears than he used to be, because he’s right about those struggles with his body.

He has only managed more 20 matches in a season once in the past seven years as he battled ankle, hamstring and Achilles tendon injuries. It changed him, because it changed what he could do.

When it comes to Johnson it’s easy to hold running the ball early — often and continuously — as the solution to all of his problems, but the truth isn’t so simple because it never is when you’re the halfback and in charge of so much more than yourself.

Shaun Johnson passing ball for Warriors in 2016
Johnson’s vast experience will be invaluable for the Warriors.(AAP: David Rowland)

If all Johnson had to do or could do was run, his career would probably be done with. His line breaks and tackle busts have slowly dropped since a serious ankle injury in 2015, but his try assist and line break assist numbers have steadily risen.

The same thing happened to Stacey Jones and Benji Marshall when they aged, and to cross to the other rugby code it’s the same situation Quade Cooper found himself in upon return to the Wallabies earlier this season.

All three of those players grew and changed as their bodies demanded it — as Johnson has done — and so Johnson returns not as the fireball kid of yesterday, who bounced around and blew through gaps that weren’t even there like he wasn’t carrying New Zealand on his shoulders at all, but as the wise old man.

The Warriors have the pieces of a good spine: two excellent forwards in Tohu Harris and Addin Fonua-Blake, and the bones of a decent team and one of Johnson’s great gifts now is the ability to make others around him better.

And of course, there is dynamic fullback Reece Walsh, in whom there is so much of the old Johnson. And while Johnson may still be the key man among the playmakers, he does not have to live up to the impossible tasks he was given in his youth.

Instead, his directive from coach Nathan Brown is to show the rest of the spine — like Walsh, rugged five-eighth Chanel Harris-Tavita and the gifted but erratic Ash Taylor — a thing or two about a thing or two.

“We would hope with his experience — especially on the field — he can help us in some of the tight situations we found ourselves in this years,” Brown said.

“A lot of times we couldn’t close out games, or we found ourselves in situations where we were in good positions but we let ourselves down.

“With where Shaun is now, he’s not as quick or as flashy as he was when he was younger, but for me he plays with much better control and he sees the game much better now.

“I hope that experience, that game control, can help the team and help our younger players in those key positions.”

Reece Walsh on the run for the Warriors
Reece Walsh is among the exciting Warriors players Johnson will team up with in 2022.(AAP: Scott Radford Chisholm)

They’ll all be younger than Johnson at the Warriors, and they’ll need his guidance as they try to navigate a third season away from home as the NRL grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

Even so, it’s still jarring to hear he’ll be the elder statesman of the roster next season, even for Johnson himself.

“It’s a real young group of guys here,” Johnson said.

“Everyone is here to help turn the club around and if I’m honest, what I’ve seen in the strength and application the Warriors have shown to keep the comp going and in their performance, I think that work has already started and I’m just here to continue that.”

The Warriors aren’t after the old Shaun Johnson, which is just as well because that guy doesn’t exist anymore.

They’ve got old Shaun Johnson, and that’s enough for now.

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