Maria Tsialis, Big League
It feels like a long time ago that rugby league fans were first treated to a little YouTube clip of Shaun Johnson jinking, side-stepping and annihilating touch football opponents in front of a crowd of tens who came to watch his school go round the pitch.
That clip has been watched by almost 200,000 people and Johnson has gone on to play rugby league in front of many more fans since then.
Stemming from that formative period of his football career was the weight of expectation. There was no doubt this kid was going to be good.
But three years since he made his NRL first grade debut for the Warriors, Johnson enters this World Cup tour faced with his biggest challenge yet – filling the hole left by Benji Marshall.
Johnson is only 23 and his former coach in under-20s and first grade, Tony Iro, says he isn’t quite at the age most halfbacks hit their straps, but Johnson can carry any pressure this World Cup may heap on him.
“Even though he’s young in league years he’s had that expectation on him right when he started, even at under-20s level when he basically started playing the game,” explains Iro.
“As a halfback he was expected to lead the team around. He won a premiership with the 20s and he’s been to a grand final with the Warriors already. He’s steadily grown as a player.
“But I thought this year his performances were a lot more consistent. That’s the challenge for him.
“It’s a tough position. You look at any of the top halfbacks in the game, from Cooper Cronk to Johnathan Thurston, those early years were very formative and if you ask them, consistency was the biggest thing they had to learn.
“If you look at those two players in particular, it probably wasn’t until they were 25 where they developed those games where they were consistent every week. We expect the same development in Shaun.”
The Kiwi squad will be taking four playmakers on tour, with Johnson joined by Kieran Foran, Thomas Leuluai and Issac Luke.
With 30 Tests under his belt, Leuluai is the equal most-capped Kiwi player along with captain Simon Mannering. The veteran is Johnson’s foil at the Warriors as well and Iro says Johnson is looking forward to learning from his more experienced team-mates.
“I think on this trip Shaun will get a lot more exposure on how we operate and how the boys want him to play,” he says.
“He’ll have some expectations on his own performance. The previous two times he’s played in New Zealand we’ve only had a three- or four-day preparation in the Anzac Test.
“I’m really looking forward to him learning a lot behind Thomas and Kieran in terms of how to run a footy side. I know he is too.
“I expect him to grow throughout the tournament. I know he will, he’s too talented not to. We know we’re going to field a pretty formidable pack so he’s going to have the ability to get on the front foot. I’m confident he’ll learn plenty over the duration of the tournament.”