Friday, July 19

The Curious Case of Shaun Johnson

Last week, Shaun Johnson gave us a useful reminder that we as fans need to get better at how we criticise the players we love and support, and how quickly the passion we share for our team can quickly turn toxic. Each of us has a responsibility to ensure that negativity isn’t directed personally at players who are just doing their best. In saying that, it doesn’t mean we can’t criticise, so long as it’s constructive and encouraging. So in the curious case of Shaun Johnson – I shall do just that.

If you were to select the two best half-backs that have ever played for the Warriors, you’d be hard pressed to look any further than Stacey Jones and Shaun Johnson. Both are champions. Despite this, Johnson is partial to copping a fair bit of criticism. And this week, he chose to respond to those critics with a social media post that called out their negativity. However, in doing so, he also acknowledged he hasn’t been playing as well as he would like, which somewhat validates the criticism, but doesn’t condone the tone of it.

Johnson has been unable to replicate the form of 2023 but there are two distinct and logical reasons for this:

1.  Johnson improves the more he trains and plays. It’s no coincidence that last year was one of his best given he played almost every game of the season. So when injuries interrupt his preparation and game time, it also impacts his momentum in improvement and form. He’s just not the type of player that can walk out onto the park after 3 weeks out, and blow you away. Carrying an injury and not being able to train does not work for him – a lesson coach Webster is realising.

2. Johnson has become fairly predictable in his game management and play execution. To the point where it’s mildly boring to watch and even fans can pick what he’s going to do. Teams have worked this out, and are easily able to adapt. Unfortunately for Johnson, his team aren’t helping by giving away penalties for poor discipline, so any good work and pressure he does manage to create, is quickly undone.

Enter Te Marie Martin.

Having lost 5 games in a row, the Warriors find themselves playing the three-time champion Penrith Panthers in Magic Round, with Johnson injured and Te Marie shuffled into his spot as cover. And while it wasn’t pretty for either side, the Warriors managed to find a way to win against a team they hadn’t beaten in 5 years. But then the Warriors go on to beat the high-flying Dolphins and the Cowboys in Townsville. Suddenly eyebrows are raised and heads have turned. How can they do this so seamlessly without Johnson? Why is the team playing so well with Te Marie calling the shots, but not with Johnson there? It sets up an epic encounter at home against the Storm, with Johnson returning from injury – and as mentioned earlier, Johnson needs time to find his feet and build momentum. The Warriors lose. The fanbase can live with it and know they will beat the Titans and Johnson will work out the chemistry with Martin. So when the Warriors find themselves on the end of one of the biggest shellackings in recent memory, out come the knives for Johnson. To make matters worse, he picks up an injury that will see him miss 4 weeks.

You can hear the collective pause – does this mean Te Marie takes his spot? Do we get to find out if this was just an aberration or if Te Marie at half-back is the real deal?

If the Warriors win those 3 games with Johnson out (there is a bye in there too), then… what?

Webster may find himself caught in two minds. Do I stand my ground and put my senior playmaker back to his rightful position and let him build, or do I acknowledge a change of the guard, give Martin the keys, and switch Johnson to five-eighth, where Harris-Tevita hasn’t put a foot wrong and has a seamless chemistry with Martin already…. If Webster returns Johnson to halfback, he’ll be doing so out of sheer stubbornness and loyalty.

I adore Johnson. But Martin is the future. And does anyone remember Luke Metcalfe? The NRL is a train that doesn’t stop for anyone. It certainly isn’t going to give Johnson much time to find his form. Tough decisions may lie ahead for Webster.

But one thing is for sure; Shaun Johnson is a champion player. And will always be thought of as one.