Warriors to take pressure off Johnson
Everyone knows Shaun Johnson is capable of carrying the Warriors to their first NRL Auckland Nines title this weekend, it's just that his coach and teammates would rather he didn't have to.
The 24-year-old halfback produced some scintillating play at last year's tournament, scoring four tries and laying on a number of assists as the Warriors cruised through pool play.
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He went on to be crowned tournament MVP, but by the time the playoffs rolled around on Sunday Johnson looked burnt out, as the Warriors collapsed at the hands of eventual winners the Cowboys in the semi-finals.
As a result coach Andrew McFadden has elected to load the Warriors' squad with more playmaking and ball-running options this time around, in the hope of reducing the workload on Johnson come finals time.
"The balance of the team is something we considered," McFadden said.
"We have probably got a few more big men in the middle of the field as well [as more halves], and hopefully we get that balance right.
"It's trying to get that balance of having ball players and ball runners.
"Fortunately with our ball players they are also very good ball runners – Shaun in particular.
"It is very important [to rotate players where possible], but obviously it's still important to get to the knockout stage.
"If we manage to get up a couple of games then we might be able to rotate, but we certainly want to make sure that on that first day we play well."
This weekend Johnson will be joined on the Eden Park turf by fellow playmaker Chad Townsend, along with veteran rake Nathan Friend.
Rookie half Tuimoala Lolohea will run out at the event for the second time too, hoping to assume a more advanced role and take some of the defensive attention off Johnson.
"We have a couple of people who didn't play last year who play similar positions to Shaun, so hopefully that takes some pressure off 'Shauny'," 20-year-old Lolohea said.
"We know Shaun is going to perform to the best he can… (but) I have more confidence going into this one compared to last year, just knowing what to do, and I can't wait to play."
Before a team list was even submitted the bookies had the Warriors installed as favourites to win the Nines, and the expectation remains high that they will claim the title in front of their success-starved home crowd.
Johnson acknowledges that the pressure will be on, not just for the team, but also himself individually.
"I think the pressure comes from ourselves… I expect us to win the comp," Johnson said.
"I have always sort of had pressure, whether playing here or overseas.
"I know what I can do with the ball… it's just about going out and having some fun."
Meanwhile the Kiwi side were embracing the chance to take on 41-year-old guest Raider Ken Nagas in pool play.
"I wasn't lucky enough to watch what he did in his day, but I've certainly seen his highlights and he can move," Johnson said of Nagas.
"I just hope he doesn't run around me or anything because that would be embarrassing."