Richie Barnett on league

Opinion and analysis from former Kiwis captain Richie Barnett

Richie Barnett: Johnson can become a great halfback

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He has skills others can only dream about but they often don't work on a rugby league field.

Shaun Johnson in action. Photo / Renee McKay/Getty Images)
Shaun Johnson in action. Photo / Renee McKay/Getty Images)

The first half of last weekend's Anzac test left me convinced Shaun Johnson will develop into one of the best halfbacks in the game.

We have been waiting a long time for him to develop in this way but I saw it for the first time last Friday night. He was under tremendous pressure, given he was the only kicking option in the Kiwis side, but came up with some great and varying kicks to help New Zealand to a deserved halftime lead. It gave me great confidence that Johnson is getting closer and closer to what is needed.

Controlling games is not about the flashy stuff all the time but doing the right thing at the right time - the percentage play. It's what Johnathan Thurston and, more particularly, Cooper Cronk do every week and what the Kiwis were missing from Benji Marshall in the latter stages of his time as captain.

Closing out sets is so crucial in today's game because momentum and yardage are key elements. Johnson seems to get that.

He's hard on himself, which proves he wants to learn. It also shows he wants to do what is right for the team and that quality can't be understated.

It's not easy coming from a touch background. He has skills others can only dream about but they often don't work on a rugby league field. It takes time to understand the game and it's why people need to be patient with Johnson.

He's played nearly 75 NRL games now, which means he's a bona fide NRL player, but it often takes longer for New Zealand players to make it.

They grow up playing a happy-go-lucky style that lacks structure because many players can simply rely on their size to punch through holes. Let's just say completing sets is not a priority.

It's different in Australia, where players are generally smaller and quicker, and they learn to let the ball do the work or develop their footwork.

Johnson needs to learn the balance between when to control and when to use his natural instincts because there's still room for creativity and second-phase football. We saw that a couple of weeks ago in the Warriors' great win over the Storm when Johnson played what is in front of him.

I think we'll see the best of Johnson in a couple of years but we need to see further development this year in his ability to control games.

Simon Mannering is also trying to find his niche as a leader. I can't think of a more complete defender in the game, and what he achieved in the Anzac test was phenomenal. It astounds me what he achieves every week.

He's someone who is exactly what teams need but he's still developing as a leader and is still learning what to say and when to say it during games.

For someone who does so much work, and plays the position he does, he gets very little time to see what is happening in a match. It's hard to come up with the right thing to say when you have your head down so much.

That's where backup from other senior players is essential. He probably doesn't have as much help as he needs with both the Warriors and Kiwis, especially when Thomas Leuluai is absent, and it's an area both teams need to improve dramatically.

A lot of work is being done on developing leaders but they're just not coming through as quickly as hoped and it's probably reflected in results in recent times.

- NZ Herald

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