Twelve months ago it was hard to imagine Shaun Johnson ever playing for a club other than the New Zealand Warriors, but ahead of facing him for the first time since his switch to the Cronulla Sharks his former teammates are embracing the chance to get one over him.
For much of the Warriors' team the match at Wellington's Westpac Stadium will be the first time they have played against Johnson, who was granted a release from the club at the end of last year and later blamed the split on Warriors coach Stephen Kearney not liking him.
While admitting he has spoken to Johnson just once since then, Kearney denied there was lingering bad blood, while several players including captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck said they have remained close friends with Johnson from across the Tasman.
"I'm constantly talking to [Shaun] and seeing how he is going, I'll text him before and after [the game]," Tuivasa-Sheck said.
"But when it comes to game day he is an opponent… I will wish him all the best, travel well, and then game day it's on.
"He will have a few places where he will know he can try and run through our line… he will just have a lot of energy and be trying to get his team up."
After being benched in the dying minutes of Cronulla's loss to Brisbane in round 16, Johnson bounced back with a solid individual showing in a heavy defeat to Melbourne last week, scoring a try, running for 135 metres and breaking four tackles.
Warriors lock Jazz Tevaga, who made a colossal 72 tackles in last week's golden point draw with the Broncos, said the recent adversity Johnson has faced won't faze him come Friday night.
"Shaun will be looking to play his best footy like he always does, and I don't expect anything less from him," Tevaga told NRL.com.
"Shauny has faced it all before. I messaged him and said, 'who cares about the haters, just do you and stay solid'.
"I know both us and him will be pumped to play… I am sure he will be looking to get one over us."
Kearney said while his players knew exactly what Johnson can bring to a game, they hadn't paid much attention to him in their preparation this week.
"If I'm honest we haven't had a real big focus on Shaun," Kearney said.
"We know the threat that Shaun, and not only Shaun but [Matt] Moylan and those sorts of guys, present.
"I think they have got a couple of really experienced forwards, hard-nosed professionals in Gal [Paul Gallen], [Andrew] Fifita and [Matt] Prior… they set a real good platform for Moylan, Shaun and Chad [Townsend] to work off the back of."
Match: Warriors v Sharks
Round 18 -
Venue: Westpac Stadium
- LIVE PASS
The Warriors have named an unchanged 17 for the trip to Wellington, with Issac Luke retaining the starting job at hooker as Karl Lawton continues to recover from a shoulder injury.
Luke was a leading contributor for the Warriors in attack last week, scoring a try and running for 98 metres, but pulled no punches in his assessment of his defensive game.
"I was part of all three [Brisbane] tries, so I'm not happy about that," Luke said.
"You've got boys five times the size of me and running my way, I just have to make sure my tackle selection is a lot better.
"I am happy to be back in the fold and trying to earn my way back. I have the players' respect, hopefully I have the coaches' [respect] as well."
Lawton is expected to be available for selection again next week, along with centre Patrick Herbert (hamstring).