Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Johnson still searches for perfection

Shaun Johnson has shown some freakish skills but the brilliance has come with equal measures of retraint.
Photo / Getty Images
Shaun Johnson has shown some freakish skills but the brilliance has come with equal measures of retraint. Photo / Getty Images

In terms of numbers, Shaun Johnson matches up well with the best in the game - but that won't be enough for the rest of 2012.

The Warriors No7 compares favourably with Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston, Todd Carney and Daly Cherry-Evans across tries, try assists, line breaks and kicking metres.

Where he is yet to match that quartet is his consistency and influence on a game. At times this year, he has played a big hand in critical wins (vs the Roosters, Titans and Panthers) but on other occasions, the 21-year-old has failed to stamp his authority.

For all their undoubted potential, the Warriors have won just six games this year.

"If we lose, it really pisses me off," Johnson told the Herald on Sunday, "especially in close games like [last week] where you look at what their halves were doing at the back end of the game to get them over the line.

It's all very well being that dominant half for 70 minutes of the game but where it counted, [the Cronulla halves] stood up.

"That hurts - I learned the hard way about being a bit smarter with options at certain times."

"[Last weekend] he made some wrong calls but some other things were good game management," says Warriors coach Brian McClennan.

"Shaun is heading in the right direction. He has got a lot of areas to work on but he is not on his own there."

Labelled a boy wonder when he came into first grade last year, Johnson knows that a series of mature, dominant displays are vital if the Warriors are to make an impression on the top eight.

"I feel like I need to play a role in every game I'm in - there should be no questions about that," says Johnson. "I should be that person that can either steer us to victory or if we lose the one that mucks it up for us.

"I don't want to be looking at anyone else. I've taken that expectation on board."

Johnson made his first-grade bow in round 12 last year.

It was a subdued debut from the halfback, who had been the subject of high praise from luminaries such as Andrew Johns and Peter Sterling since early 2009 after his Toyota Cup exploits.

"It all went pretty fast," recalls Johnson of the 13-6 loss to the Roosters.

"I just wanted to play my role and if I did that, the instinct kind of footy would come off the back of that. I remember thinking I didn't have as much time with the ball in hand."

Soon, though, most understood the hype, especially after spectacular long-range tries against the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Cowboys and Broncos, with the effort in Brisbane one of the tries of the season.

Then there was the unforgettable moments of magic in the preliminary final in Melbourne and on grand final day. A star was born.

But that was then. Last year, Johnson was a kid still finding his feet in first grade; there was (slightly) less expectation. In 2012, he bears equal playmaking responsibility with James Maloney and is under the microscope more.

As Benji Marshall found, the gaps are harder to come by.

This season there have still been moments of flash and dash but they have come with equal measures of restraint.

Alongside Maloney, he has seemed more confident in leading the team around the park.

"You can't go chasing that big play - it just sort of happens," says Johnson. "I've come a long way since last year.

"I feel much more confident in believing what I am saying, telling [team-mates] where to run and not doubting myself."

Johnson's tackling has steadily improved this year, though McClennan still likes to protect him by placing the halfback at left centre on defence.

He came into 2012 wary of the dreaded second season syndrome, which has enveloped many a great young prospect, and aware of Daniel Mortimer's example.

Before Johnson and Cherry-Evans last season, Mortimer was the last halfback to play in a grand final in his rookie year (2009) but is currently playing reserve grade at the Roosters.

"Shaun is making progress," says McClennan.

"You are not really a professional until you have played 100 games. Shaun has played 20-odd games.

"All you can ask for is signs of improvement - you can't put an old head on a young body."

- Herald on Sunday

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