MVPs of 2014: Shaun Johnson
As we count down to season 2014, NRL.com identifies 30 players who will be crucial to their team's fortunes this year. From new faces to rising stars to proven performers who will need to lift this season, these are our 'MVPs' for 2014.
It's hard to believe 23-year-old playmaker and Kiwis Test half Shaun Johnson has played just three seasons of NRL, such is his importance to the current New Zealand Warriors outfit.
Already a senior player and automatic selection at international level, Johnson has the speed and evasive running game of the best fullbacks plus the vision and ball skills of a true playmaker.
Johnson was already a NYC star and premiership winner when he made his senior debut in Round 11 of 2011, and just four months later, with fewer than 20 first grade games under his belt, he played a starring role in his side's upset 20-12 win over the heavily fancied Melbourne Storm in the preliminary final to book a spot in that year's decider.
Although there was an air of inevitability about Manly's strong win in the grand final, the Warriors threatened a shock comeback late in the piece on the back of some more Johnson magic – he was heavily involved in both the Warriors' tries in the match; a great run setting up Manu Vatuvei to make Manly fans nervous before a freakish kick and regather led to Elijah Taylor scoring, making it 18-10 with more than 10 to play.
Manly went on to win but Johnson had firmly stamped himself as a star of the future, and it's a prediction he has gone on to cement with some great performances at both NRL and Test level since.
In an underperforming 2013 Warriors team, Johnson led the way for try assists with 18 to rank 10th in the NRL – and every player ahead of him represented a side that made the finals. His 13 line breaks in 24 games was equal second among playmakers after Roosters pivot James Maloney (18), and his 177 points from 10 tries, 67 goals and three field goals was the fourth best in the competition.
He also managed 14 offloads and ran for 53 metres per game (second most among halfbacks after Johnathan Thurston's 73), however he also racked up an NRL-high 35 errors (Thurston was the next of the playmakers with 27), and his club-high 71 missed tackles was third in the NRL behind Titans halfback Albert Kelly (84) and Maloney (72).
It's those stats he needs to improve, rather than his already impressive swag of attacking numbers, to help the Warriors take the next step this year. Like the Warriors team in general, Johnson is often brilliant but can also be inconsistent, and it's those off days that can frustrate fans. His combination in 2014 with premiership-winning Wigan custodian and English Test fullback Sam Tomkins will be crucial to the Warriors' chances.
If the two can combine well, along with whoever Johnson's halves partner turns out to be (Thomas Leuluai and former Shark Chad Townsend are the favourites, or it could even be Tomkins if Kevin Locke retains the number 1 jersey), the Warriors have the firepower around those players to be a serious force in 2014.