Enigmatic Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson may have led his side to just one victory so far this season and at times felt “lost and lethargic” on the field, but the Kiwi No.7 insists he and his teammates are determined to toughen up and get their 2013 premiership campaign back on the rails.
Ahead of their Round 8 clash with the Titans in Auckland on Sunday, a refreshingly candid Johnson has revealed his desire to lead the team off the bottom of the table, gain greater consistency in his own game and become feared as one of the premier playmakers in the NRL.
“I’d certainly like to cement myself as one of the best halfbacks in the comp and play some good consistent footy,” Johnson, who debuted less than two seasons ago, tells NRL.com.
“Looking back on my journey in the NRL so far, it’s been a bit up and down and I guess that’s certainly reflected how the team’s gone when I’ve been in it. I think I’ve got a lesson to learn there in that if I can do my role in the team week in and week out, I’m starting to see that that’s going to contribute to us getting a win.”
The mercurial Johnson, a two-time New Zealand representative, says he can learn a lot from the game’s best No.7s about how to submit consistent performances in each match he plays.
“You look at it and you know who’s going to turn up and you’re going to have to be on your game to stop them.
You look at Thurston and Cronk and those types of players – if you do video on them you know that they’re going to be on point and they’re going to be coming at you for 80 minutes,” Johnson says.
“I guess that’s the standard that I want to be at and I want teams to be on their toes if they’re going to try to shut me down, I want them to know I’m going to turn up. At the moment I can get a bit lost and be a bit lethargic out there – it’s what I’m working on at the moment. You look at those players as the benchmark.”
Johnson’s short career – with a highlights reel of blinding acceleration, Benji Marshall-like footwork and the anticipation of players much older than he – has already seen him tagged the Warriors’ great hope and the “next Benji”, among other things. For Johnson, who has “a lot to learn”, that pressure – of playing NRL and Test football at such a young age – is something he’s still getting used to.
“Some of the things players say to me sometimes… I guess my development from when I first came in to where I am now, has gone pretty quickly,” he reveals.
“I’m taking it all in at the moment but I certainly don’t want people to forget I’m only 22. I’ve still got a long time hopefully in the NRL and still a lot to learn.
“Every time you go on the field, your reputation’s on the line. They remember you for that game. You’ve got to be at your best every time you take the field, otherwise you get found out. People start talking bad things and that sort of stuff. That’s one of the toughest things about playing in the NRL – it’s not like playing local club where you can get away with making an error or two or not pushing up the short side and no-one will notice.”
The 2013 NRL All Star says an NRL victory for his side is not far away, even if the group has felt disheartened by their one-and-six start to the year.
“We’re feeling obviously a bit frustrated we haven’t been able to get a couple more wins but in saying that we’ve played some top-quality sides over the past few weeks and while we haven’t got the results we’ve played some pretty good footy,” Johnson says of losses by 10 points or less to the Storm, Raiders and Rabbitohs in the past three weeks.
“We can take some confidence out of that – we’re feeling good and remaining positive… It’s all individual mistakes that are costing us at the wrong time. We’ve been a bit weak when we’ve needed to be tough and, looking back at the games we say we should’ve won, we built quite a bit of pressure on ourselves by handing the ball over, making silly little errors, giving away penalties – all self-inflicted stuff.
“I think if we can get those areas out of our game, be tougher at training, be tougher on ourselves as individuals, I think it’ll go a long way to helping us get a win.”
Johnson personally has had a very tough start to the season. His club’s poor form aside, the Warriors halfback has been racking up frequent flyer points like Michael Clarke has runs in recent years – so far in 2013 he’s made return journeys from Auckland to Sydney (twice), the Gold Coast, Canberra and Melbourne – and he has trips scheduled to Wellington, Sydney and Brisbane in the next month. It’s an exhausting itinerary combined with training and playing but, for Johnson, it’s all part of the job of representing the Warriors and New Zealand.
“You’ve got to have your escape and get away from it, especially when you’ve been busy like I have the past few weeks,” Johnson says of the extensive travels.
“[The Warriors] played in Canberra, we went over there on the Thursday, played Saturday night, I stayed in camp with the Kiwis in Canberra and played the following Friday, came home on the Saturday, flew out to Melbourne on Tuesday, played the Storm on Thursday and flew back… it’s been a bit busy and I’ve had to find time to relax and get away from it all.”
Johnson escapes by hitting the motorway and heading 30 minutes north from his home near Auckland’s CBD to visit his family.
“I’ve got three brothers, my dad and mum, and my partner too – they’re good to be around when you don’t want to talk about footy and just take your mind off it,” Johnson, whose younger brother Adam was once a Warrior too, says.
Now though, his focus is to get the Warriors back on the winners’ list with a victory over the Gold Coast on Sunday.
“We’d certainly love to win and any time we get to play at home is a special occasion for us,” he says.
“With the Titans coming over I think it’s going to be an exciting game of footy to watch. They like throwing the ball around and they’ve got some pretty big players on the edges in [Jamal] Idris and big Dave Taylor, I think it’s going to be an exciting game.
“We’re certainly not giving up hope – it’s a very long season. We’ve got to start winning games to show fans we’re still working hard and hopefully that can start this week. It only takes a couple of wins to get you on a roll.”