Warriors Orange Peeler
Warriors vs Dragons Gameday Chatter [Round 1, 2022]
Would really love to see Shaun Johnson have a great come back return but have a niggling question in my mind about how previous injuries may have slowed him down.
Rugby league: What to expect from older, wiser Shaun Johnson on his Warriors NRL return
When Shaun Johnson agreed to return to the Warriors last June, there were plenty involved with the club who wanted to temper expectations.
The prodigal son was back but he wasn't going to be the messiah, the man who would transform the Auckland team into consistent winners.
Johnson would bring experience, game management and a heap of playmaking nous, but there is a limit to what can be achieved by one individual.
Nine months on, the picture has changed, as the outside hype around Johnson has steadily built and he is being seen as a silver bullet heading into this campaign, which begins against the Dragons on Saturday.
That's unfair on Johnson but is something he is used to. He was the face of the club for almost a decade and few carried more blame for bad results that the Hibiscus Coast product.
It was probably only when he was gone that Johnson's unique skillset was truly appreciated, as the Warriors attack completely fell apart in 2019 and hasn't been the same since.
Johnson had his issues with consistency, but was hardly Robinson Crusoe on that across the team and was rarely behind a dominant forward pack.
Yet he still delivered remarkable numbers; 153 try assists, 63 tries and 88 line breaks across 162 matches and eight seasons. Even as his game changed he remained the fulcrum, averaging 21 try assists across his last three seasons in Auckland.
What can we expect from Johnson 2.0?
The 32-test Kiwi evolved his game management skills at Cronulla, enjoying the extra responsibility in an experienced Sharks outfit.
Johnson doesn't have the blinding acceleration and ability to dazzle defenders of his peak, though he is still elusive and dangerous inside the red zone.
But most importantly, the 31-year-old makes things happen, reads the game well and has an accurate and varied kicking game. He's the conductor the Warriors desperately need and one of the best playmakers this country has produced.
"Shaun will be a far more valuable player for the Warriors now because of what he can do for the people around him and what he can do for the football team," said Warriors coach Nathan Brown. "[Whereas] at times probably as a young kid, he had to rely on brilliance and it's hard to be brilliant all the time.
"That's very, very difficult but to play with control and kick the ball really well and help teammates look good - that's a part of his game that's very consistent."
Brown is aware of the expectations surrounding Johnson – on both sides of the Tasman – but isn't concerned about the load on his halfback's shoulders.
"[It] doesn't really matter what people expect or say about him," said Brown. "We can be pretty confident that most weeks he'll get that part of his game right because that's what he bases his game on now. His skillset now is so different to what it used to be. And those things hang up in big games and it'll hang up for us when we need it most."
But it won't be easy.
When he was last at the Warriors Johnson had Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at the back, the creativity and power of Peta Hiku and Solomone Kata in the centres and Blake Green as the ideal halves foil. Not to mention David Fusitua and Ken Maumalo, among the best wingers in the competition in 2018.
The current backline has potential but is green and will need to adjust quickly to the demands of the NRL.
Johnson won't convert the Warriors into instant contenders but he will make a considerable difference, especially in the tight contests against fellow middleweight teams.
Last year 13 Warriors matches were decided by margins of six points or fewer (they lost seven of those games) and there is hope Johnson can swing that pendulum.
"If we do have those close games, that's where Shaun comes in," said captain Addin Fonua-Blake. "He's a very experienced player, so it's going to work a lot in our favour. Having that cool head, he knows how to handle those high pressure moments in games."