When Corey Norman was released by the Parramatta Eels to sign with the St George Illawarra Dragons, many Saints fans raised their eyebrows, here’s why.
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Shaun Johnson’s performance in the Four Nations has confirmed that he is one of the best halfbacks in the world.
There’s never been a doubting of the Kiwi’s talent, ever since he burst on to the NRL scene in 2011. The twinkling feet, bamboozling step, outrageous ball skills and huge boot can trouble the best of defences on any day.
But Johnson hasn’t always been able to put it all together when it matters. Often he’s been a ‘rocks and diamonds’ kind of player – brilliant one moment but so-so the next.
That changed in the Four Nations where he was outstanding in all four games. It wasn’t just the final though, the game where he ran riot over the Kangaroos to score one brilliant solo try and set up another.
It was also against England, where he tormented them with bomb after bomb. It was against Samoa when his accurate goal-kicking proved the difference. It was against Australia in the tournament opener when he collected the man-of-the-match, with a try and five from five shots at goal.
Johnson has backed up great performance after great performance in the Four Nations. It’s a big reason why New Zealand, along with a bullying pack and two excellent finishing wingers, reigned supreme in the tournament.
Watching him in the NRL, Johnson has always been an excitement machine. Thirty-seven tries in 83 games – a record any winger would love to have – shows he is a match-winner.
But at the Warriors he has lacked having a formidable halfback partner beside him. He has that in the national side with Kieran Foran, one of the best five-eighths on the planet.
Foran excels at Manly alongside Daly Cherry-Evans, complimenting the Kangaroos half perfectly. They work brilliantly together like the great halves combinations of the past – Laurie Daley and Ricky Stuart, Andrew Johns and Matthew Johns, Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny, Allan Langer and Kevin Walters.
Foran is a calm, steady, tough footballer, the perfect partner for the more flamboyant, risk-taking halfback Johnson.
At the Warriors, Johnson has Chad Townsend or Thomas Leuluai outside of him. In the past he has had Pita Godinet. None of those three, respectfully, compare to Foran.
The best the 24-year old has had in his four seasons in the NRL was James Maloney, the NSW five-eighth who is now with the Roosters. Not surprisingly, Maloney and Johnson together led the Warriors all the way to the grand final in 2011, in Johnson’s first season in first-grade.
When the playmaker hasn’t had a classy six alongside him he has been forced to run the whole show, get his hands on the ball every play and do everything. It leads to mistakes at times and overplaying his hand.
But in the Kiwis with Foran there, he can size the defence up, pick his moments and inject himself into a match at the perfect time. The two are developing a outstanding combination over time and the best – with both just 24 years of age – could be yet to come.
Phil Gould once described Johnson as “the new Benji Marshall’. It’s early days and the fleet-of-foot halfback is merely three years into his career, but he could be better than Benji.
Follow John Davidson on Twitter @johnnyddavidson