Warriors halves the NRL's odd couple
Every coach will tell you all 17 players play a vital role. There’s the engine room, the flash out wide, the tenacious tacklers and crafty dummy-half runner. But more often than not, adulation and blame is shifted to the pairing in the halves. From the dizzying highs of setting up a try to the awkward lows of fluffing a perfect opportunity, the No.6 and No.7 are often scrutinised as they attempt to lead their team to glory.
But while experience may seemingly count for everything in a halves combination, the form of James Maloney (right) and Shaun Johnson (below) in the Warriors’ three-game winning streak belies the total 51 games they have played between them.
The bulk of those have been played by the Orange-born Maloney, who at the ripe old age of 24 has already been at his fair share of footy clubs. Starting with Parramatta’s feeder team, Wentworthville, Maloney led the side to a grand final win in the NSW Cup in 2008 before moving to Melbourne, where he played for their reserve grade team, the Central Coast Storm.
Although he made his NRL debut for Melbourne in 2009, he played only four games before finding a home at the Warriors last season.
Leading into 2011, the man they call ‘Jimmy’ had amassed just 28 first grade games – a helluva lot less than the cool, calm and collected demeanour he projects on the field.
“I don’t reflect on the journey so far a whole lot,” Maloney tells Big League. “I had my years in the lower grades and it was good to do the apprenticeship. I got my first crack at Melbourne and learnt a lot in the 12 months there. Coming over here has been a really good move for me. I’m enjoying my footy and I’m looking forward to building on what I’m doing.
“I’m pretty happy with the way my form is going. Obviously our forward pack is playing really well at the moment which makes it easy for us on the back of that. We’re just trying to get that consistency over the 80 minutes, and trying to play that grinding football, put them into corners and the kicking game is pretty important there.”
Johnson has had a different ride to the top after being tagged by rugby league great Andrew Johns as a superstar of the future. He finished the 2010 Toyota Cup as the premiership-winning halfback and leading pointscorer (171) and has been putting his claims for first grade selection forward with outstanding performances for the Auckland Vulcans in the NSW Cup.
It took an injury to Brett Seymour in Round 11 to give Johnson a crack at the big time, and six games and three tries later, he looks to be finding his rhythm.
“I’m just sticking solid at the moment and letting Jimmy run things and just playing off him,” says Johnson, who has contributed five try assists in his past two games. “I’m loving it; I can’t wait for next week. I’m slowly getting the hang of things, and I think the more you play the more comfortable you feel.”
Though he may find himself back in reserve grade when Seymour returns from injury, Johnson is optimistic about his time in one of the toughest sporting arenas.
“All I can do is put my best foot forward each week, and if that’s enough to keep me in the side then I’m happy,” Johnson says. “If it doesn’t, then I’ve just got to go back and work harder. I just do my job the best I can and hopefully I keep my spot.” Maloney has been impressed with his young halves partner. “I think he’s going really well. He’s learning and he’s getting better every week, so that’s all we can ask of him,” Maloney says. “Me and Shauny have had a few games together now, and we’re starting to play some pretty good football.”
Maloney squashed rumours he wanted to leave the Warriors by signing a one-year extension, which will keep his family, including 18-month-old son Kade, in
New Zealand until at least the end of 2012.
With another finals campaign likely, Maloney is revelling in the chance to play good footy while raising his baby in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
“Fatherhood is really good, I’m loving it,” he says. “I’m really enjoying the family time over there at the moment ... At least I know what I’m doing for another 12 months and we’ll go from there.”