The NRL off-season continues to go from one rumour to the next, but one was finally confirmed this morning as Shaun Johnson was released by the New Zealand Warriors.
The 2014 golden boot winner and veteran of 163 games for the club from Auckland was reportedly frustrated with the club not offering him a new contract for 2020 among other factors and obviously has a new destination sorted out early in Australia, allowing him to leave the club ahead of 2019.
While Johnson told social media there was nothing for him to sign beyond 2019 and that he loved the Warriors, this could be the best move he has made for his career to date.
If there is one thing the Warriors are known for, it’s inconsistency. While that bug didn’t bite them so hard during 2018, it still hit hard at times and Johnson was no exception to the rule.
The Warriors have always had the potential to win competitions and cause genuine headaches for other teams in September, but with the exception of 2014, have failed to do so since Johnson made his debut in 2011.
Their forwards have had the name power there to do well, but struggled to dominate or be competitive on a consistent basis. As the old saying goes, the halves might as well stay in the dressing rooms if the forwards can’t do their job.
But it’s more than just the inconsistency. It’s the constant travel, it’s being out of sight and out of mind at times to the Australian press and it’s having a routine which can’t be easy to settle into when you’re flying four hours or more every second week.
The Auckland-based club – and for that reason, Johnson – have more excuses for their lack of success over the years than you could poke a stick at.
And yet, Johnson still managed to have more talent in his little finger than some players have shown across their whole career. He just frustratingly could barely put 80 minutes together, let alone multiple weeks at a time.
Now, a move to Australia opens the door for Johnson to do something special.
Whether it’s the Dragons, Eels, Raiders, Sharks or somewhere else, the star half could turn himself into the best player in the game under proper coaching and with a good forward pack playing in front of him.
You have to look at the positives of any move like this, and from a club’s point of view, the potential positives of signing him.
As a Dragons fan, I’m not actually sold on him coming to the Red V if Gareth Widdop was to leave as has been reported in the last 24 hours. The combination between him and Ben Hunt may not work out as well as some think, but there is no question Johnson could do some scary things if the Dragons forward pack play like they did during the first half of 2018.
It’s a similar story at the Sharks, which, for all that it’s worth would probably be the best destination for him to end up at.
I wrote just last week when Holmes left that the Sharks would miss the top eight. Despite the difference in positions between Johnson and Holmes, bringing the New Zealand half to the club would change all that, with Matt Moylan able to return to fullback.
While it would mean we are forced to wait longer for a genuine look at Kyle Flanagan, Johnson has history playing alongside the steady hand of Chad Townsend, who has only improved in leaps and bounds since leaving Auckland. Johnson had one of his best seasons last year playing alongside Blake Green, who ran the show in Auckland.
It’s why the combination with Hunt may not work. Johnson needs to play alongside an organiser like Green or Townsend, and on the back of a Sharks forward pack which, while ageing, is still incredibly strong, could create all sorts of space and opportunities for Johnson.
Being able to put prolonged pressure on is something the Sharks specialise in, and while Johnson’s style is different to what Cronulla have had over the years, he would give them an attacking flair to go with their dogged determination and ability to dominate up front.
Give multiple opportunities for Johnson to score, and nine times out of ten, he will find a way for the team to get over the line, as he did at the Warriors.
He has acceleration and an excellent vision to read the game before it happens. Some of his work both with and without the ball at the Warriors over the years has been phenomenal, and he probably hasn’t received the recognition he deserves, simply because of how poor the Warriors have been at times.
Obviously, there are flaws (read, multiple errors), that he needs to work out of his game to be successful, but that comes with the high-risk style Johnson plays.
Put him alongside the organisational type, a strong forward pack and a better routine, and he could have an excellent 2019 and beyond.
Even if he doesn’t want to leave the Warriors, this is the best move for his own career and legacy by the time it’s all said and done. Whether it’s the Sharks, Dragons, or somewhere else, the same principles apply, and clubs would be mad to not at least have a look at the man known as ‘SJ.’