Tuesday, May 21

Is Shaun Johnson the only one benefiting from his return to the Warriors?

On Saturday night against the Cowboys, Shaun Johnson displayed what can only be described as the most decent consecutive 80 minutes he’s played in the last two years. 

He wasn’t spellbinding, but he was solid and putting himself in the game. Should he maintain that type of form and remain injury free, he might just repay the faith the club extended him when they bought him back into the fold. But one thing we know about Johnson is that he’s consistent at being inconsistent – so only time will tell. 

The funny thing about criticising Shaun Johnson these days is you’re not allowed to. There’s a growing over-protective section of the league community that are triggered at any hint of his name being whispered in a constructive context, let alone criticised. But don’t worry, I’m not going to bother whispering let alone be constructive, because it’s not as if Johnson or his followers would listen anyway. So, buckle in. 

There’s no doubt Johnson loves playing for the Warriors and would love nothing more than to see them playing finals footy this season, or any other. But Johnson is no mug. He knows his playing days are numbered. So, when the Warriors came a calling and looking to mend a broken bridge, it presented an opportunity for both sides. However, last weekend’s game aside, it seems more and more apparent that the only person benefiting from this arrangement, is Johnson. 

When Johnson acrimoniously departed the Warriors for Cronulla, his image took a battering. Particularly after the subsequent Rugby League World Cup fiasco and his juvenile comments directed at the Kiwis fanbase. 

He was not the people’s maverick anymore.  The problem was and maybe still is that Johnson doesn’t respect the fanbase because he thinks it is predominantly comprised of the comments section on social media, who are mostly made up of teenagers, trolls, and baby boomers who have learned to use social media to stay in touch with their families, but realised they can also share their opinions there, instead of talkback radio.

Yet Johnson appreciates he will need to keep the home fires burning once he finishes lacing up his boots, and becoming a real estate agent or digging ditches probably doesn’t hold a lot of appeal. So, Johnson would have seen returning to the Warriors as a fantastic opportunity for three reasons:  

  1. Family. Homegrown support networks for his partners and whanau. 
  2. A chance to keep playing the game he loves and lead the Warriors to glory.
  3. Rebuild his image with the fanbase that could engineer a career shift into the media once his playing days are over. 

Johnson will be aware he needed restore his sullied reputation in the eyes of Warriors supporters. Returning to the Warriors and leading the team to the promise land of finals footy will do that. If he can’t, then a PR campaign that includes some community work, signing autographs and reconnecting with the fanbase will go a long way to ingratiating himself to NZ league community, and ensuring a cushy job with Sky TV’s NRL commentary team, in years to come. 

He might, but it’s probably not in Johnson’s best interests to acknowledge any of this, because the comments section will question his motivations. To be fair, it’s not in the best interests of most professional athletes to be honest when speaking to the media, because it rarely serves the interests of their personal brand. This explains the monosyllabic interviews we have come to expect with rehearsed responses that leave us wanting to pound our head against a wall with the inane predictability of it all. 

Often, I feel I’m reading the same articles repeatedly. But can you blame them? Time and time again sports stars have found themselves in hot water for answering questions honestly or posting their personal opinions on social media. We are all different, but sports stars represent clubs, sponsors and are expected to connect to a wide range of people without offending anyone. But Johnson did. And Sky TV have advertising to sell and subscribers to appease. So, if he wants a spot-on Sky’s commentary team, Johnson needs to become palatable enough for audiences to listen to his opinions and not switch channels at half time. So far, so good. The only concern is, Johnson’s form had deteriorated so quickly, having him in the playing team may not have been in the club’s best interests anymore. 

His return to the club seemed like a good move for the Warriors at the time. He could help reinvigorate their attack, provide them some experience in tight games and take some pressure off Reece Walsh and Kodi Nikorima who were both struggling with expectation. 

All this seemed well and good so long as there were tight games and Nikorima and Walsh stuck around. Well, we know how that all played out. And now the expectation is that he supports Metcalfe, Volkman and Marie Martin. But can he? Based on last weekend’s game, yes. Based on his lack of consistency throughout his career, his injury prone status over the last 5 years and his general form over the last 2 years, the answer is no.

Watching the Warriors forward pack get matched by a significantly under strength Roosters side was frustrating to watch. The only positive that came from the game was that they didn’t give in. Apparently, that’s the benchmark for the Warriors this season. Let that sink in. So, it was yet another in a long lineage of reality checks for the club, on the distance between where they sit and their aspirations of playing finals football, let alone winning the competition. On paper, the Warriors forward pack should have monstered the Roosters. Completely dominated them. They did not. Far from it. Other than Tohu Harris, they were average at best, maybe even dare I say it, soft. Barnett put in one good hit. But that’s more than I can say for the rest. The coach defended them, citing fatigue and how proud he was that they hung in there. I mean… that’s a pretty low bar to set but I guess you have to start somewhere. 

They are within fingertips reach of becoming a good side though, which they proved against the Cowboys. 

So, what does this have to do with Johnson? 

Even in the periods where the Warriors managed to wrestle some momentum against the Chooks, Shaun Johnson wasn’t able to spot a hole unless he fell through it. He’s become so bad at spotting holes on attack, it’s a miracle of nature as to how he became a father. 

Johnson’s attacking prowess has dropped so far, I’m sceptical he’d feature in the highlights reel of most social club footy competitions, let alone NSW Cup. He would certainly be unlikely to be selected in any other NRL side in the competition, and I would suggest the only reason he continues to be is purely on reputation alone and the hope he can string enough games together (injury free) to rediscover his form.  Sadly, the Warriors don’t really have any other glaring options. Volkman needs more time to develop, and Metcalfe is injured for another 6 weeks. 

Surely Johnson’s most ardent of admirers must be reaching their limits. I might not sound like it, but I’m one of them. I was pumped to hear he was coming back to the Warriors. But since returning, for every flash of brilliance he’s shown in a game, there’s usually 79 minutes and 30 seconds of mediocrity ranging from forgettable to head scratching. He showed some good running against potential wooden spooners in the Knights but against a backline like the Roosters, he was out of his depth. His kicking game is about as predictable as the ending to a Spielberg movie. He’s so gunshy of taking on the opposition line that he looks like he doesn’t know how anymore, as though it’s the first time he’s seen one. However, his performance against the Cowboys showed promise.

The deal was – come back to the Warriors and help support our less experienced players to win us games. And in return, you get to keep playing for the team you love and rebuild your reputation with a fanbase you need on your side when you segue into the commentary teams. 

Well, from what we’ve seen so far, Johnson is the only one benefiting from this arrangement. But it’s early days in the season, and surprisingly, Johnson has now played three consecutive games without succumbing to a major injury. So, fingers crossed remaining injury free helps allow him to rediscover some form. Because wouldn’t it be great? I for one would be cheering the house down like I was on Saturday night. Based on the Cowboys game, anything is possible. Unfortunately, we know Johnson is about as consistent as a train timetable in Auckland. But like every Warriors fan, I’m hopeful. 

Disclaimer – THE 18th MAN has no links to the Warriors players, owner or staff. The opinions expressed are that of an independent observer of games and club generated media.