The NZ Warriors' Shaun Johnson in 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)

Shaun Johnson, the NRL nearly-man undone by Warriors dysfunction

Shaun Johnson burst into the NRL as the presumptive saviour of the ever-woeful Warriors, but his moments of transcendent brilliance were increasingly few and far between, and now he’s been cut loose. Jarret Filmer looks back on his career.

There were few things in Warriors history more exhilarating than a Shaun Johnson sidestep. There’s some stiff competition – a one handed Ali Lauiti’iti offload, Manu barging down the side line with a massive grin on his face, Mark Tookey trying to get in a Mini – but in terms of sheer joy nothing beats that moment when Johnson would jink his way up to the defensive line. In that moment anything was possible.

When he burst on the scene Johnson was that rarest of commodities – a genuine homegrown superstar playing the game’s most important position. It was no surprise that a rugby league public starved of greatness was quick to anoint him as the sort of generational talent that could drag the ever woeful Warriors to a premiership. The team was in need of some serious miracles and here was the man to provide them.

Usually rugby league prodigies are lumbered with premature comparisons to an all-time great. Johnson suffered no such comparisons. His skillset was so unique, so unlike anything that had come before that it comparisons failed. He had Benji’s sidestep, Steve Renouf’s speed and Ricky Stuart’s right boot. Even the usually verbose Aussie commentators struggled to find an adequate comparison. He was a talent sui generis.

Johnson heralded his arrival by guiding the Warriors under 20s side to a premiership in 2010. It can’t be underrated what this victory meant to a fanbase starved of success – not only was Johnson a supreme talent but he was a winner. For fans that endured years of mediocrity highlighted by a bankruptcy, name change and a salary cap scandal this was what they had been waiting for. When the Warriors made the Grand Final in his first year in first grade it seemed like the prophecy was coming true. Sure, they might have lost but the future looked bright enough to blind.

Within a year head coach Ivan Cleary had left for Penrith, replacement ‘Bluey’ McClennan made Manu captain and got fired and the Warriors only narrowly avoided picking up the club’s first wooden spoon. It would be seven years and another three coaches before they played finals football again.

It’s not surprising that Johnson hasn’t reached his potential. Lumbered with an ever rotating cast of coaches and playing alongside large swathes of teammates who were simply not first grade quality he was set an almost impossible task. It would be hard to argue the Warriors have been doing anything other than the vaguest impersonation of a competent NRL club over the last decade. The failure to capitalise on Johnson’s talent is just another example of the Warriors’ ongoing dysfunction.

Still questions about Johnson’s game remain. His feel for the game remained questionable. Truly great players – the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk – have an almost supernatural ability to know how to impact a game to turn the tide in their team’s favour. Too often when the Warriors found themselves behind Johnson resorts to lobbing up aimless bomb after aimless bomb while fans screamed at the T.V for him to just run.

Johnson remains at his most effective when partnered with another, more controlling half, someone content to do all the dirty work of the position and free Johnson up to play more creatively. In the salary cap era it was the sort contradiction that made Johnson difficult to build a team around – a lynchpin who required an equal talent to be at his most effective. It was a task the Warriors never proved to be up to.

In many ways Johnson was damned by the potential of those moments of brilliance. Because we had seen him conjure the impossible every time he simply produced the mundane it was impossible not to feel cheated somehow.

In recent times it seems that expectations have weighed too heavily on Johnson. He has bristled frequently over social media criticism, his post-match outburst blaming fans’ criticism for the Kiwis’ 2016 World Cup debacle a particularly ugly incident. This year was one of Johnson’s better seasons, highlighted by a round three victory over Canberra where he booted two field goals in the last minute, but despite a drastic improvement in the Warriors fortunes Johnson seemed listless and unengaged.

In retrospect the Warriors timid capitulation to an erratic Penrith Panthers in the Preliminary Finals was the final nail in the coffin. After the talismanic Tuivasa-Sheck was carted off with a knee injury the moment demanded some Johnson magic to keep his team in the match but it simply never came. It was hard to shake the lingering feeling that despite the Warriors making the finals for the first time in seven seasons something was still deeply wrong.

Ultimately it ended, as most things do, badly. It’s at once impossible to think that the Warriors released Shaun Johnson and at the same time completely inevitable. The Warriors have long been criticised for lacking the sort of brutal ruthlessness possessed by the most successful NRL franchises. It’s likely that in time the split will prove to be for the best for both Johnson and the club. The easy answer was signing Johnson to another massive contract and ensuring the fans stayed happy, results be damned. If Stephen Kearney, the Kiwis coach who seemingly extracted the best from Johnson, has decided it’s time for the club to move on without him then it’s hard to argue with him. The Warriors should be praised for making a hard decision even if it’s not particularly popular right now. The rest of the squad will be forced to face life without a presumptive saviour on the roster and with the knowledge that nobody’s roster spot is safe, even if you are the ‘chosen one’. For his part Johnson gets a chance to prove himself at another club where he won’t have to shoulder the burden of being the face of the team and out of the shadow of his own legend. If he fails to fulfil his promise then he’s simply another in the long list of talents squandered by the Warriors (see: Hurrell, Konrad, Locke, Kevin, etc)

Still the club faces a tough battle. For a generation of Warriors fans Johnson is the best player to ever don the jersey and, in their eyes, he’s been unceremoniously knifed by the only club he’s ever known. It will be difficult to find another player of a similar calibre at this stage of the season. It will be impossible to find one as exciting.

For better or for worse there was only one Shaun Johnson. Whether he was thrilling us with jinking length-of-the-field runs that turned defenders inside out or frustrating us with another dud fifth tackle option fans know that we won’t see another player like that again. It’s possible that the Warriors will be able to find another player who will guide them to more victories and maybe even that elusive maiden premiership but it’s certain that they will never find another player as exciting as Johnson. At least we’ll always have that sidestep.

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