Shaun Johnson desperate to play at Auckland Nines

By Michael Brown

Warriors players Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Issac Luke and Shaun Johnson during training at Mt Smart Stadium. 19 January 2016 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.
Warriors players Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Issac Luke and Shaun Johnson during training at Mt Smart Stadium. 19 January 2016 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.

Shaun Johnson is desperate to play at the upcoming Auckland Nines for a number of reasons, not least of all the fact it was a target he set soon after breaking his ankle last year.

The Warriors halfback is optimistic of playing at the third instalment of the Nines, which is at Eden Park on Waitangi weekend, as he makes his comeback from a serious ankle injury that coincided with the downturn of the Warriors' 2015 season.

He's just as valuable as a nines player - he was the tournament's MVP in its first season in 2014 - and is also one of the faces of the tournament. As he says in one advert, "come and watch all the stars play", but a decision on whether his will be seen on the field has not yet been made.

"I would be gutted [if I didn't play nines] but I would only be gutted because it was a target I set when I first did the injury" he said. "The surgeon said that should be plenty of time for me to come back and play it.

"It s a tournament I love being a part of and I think it's important, given it's in Auckland, that the Warriors do well. We saw last year, especially after we lost in the quarter-final, the stadium emptied as soon as we lost. As a club, we want to do well and put on a show. There are a lot of people out there who want to watch players who are going to put on that show so hopefully I can be there."

It will also give fans a first look at a Warriors team with Johnson alongside new signings Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke. The trio have played together at international level but there's considerable interest in what they can do for a Warriors outfit who have under-achieved and it will also take some pressure off Johnson to come up with most of the big plays.

Coach Andrew McFadden is tweaking the Warriors' gameplan to reflect what Luke and Tuivasa-Sheck offer, particularly Luke's skillset at dummy-half, but he's also keen to expose the pair to home fans at the Nines.

"It's a possibility," he said of the prospect of his three big names playing the Nines.

"There's no doubt that if they are fit I would really like to play them. It's a great opportunity, particularly for Roger and Issac, to play in front of the home crowd and they will be pretty effective in the tournament as well. We will wait and see but all three are tracking nicely.

"There's no doubt there's more pressure on us in this tournament than anyone else. I don't know too many other clubs would put too much attention on it. Obviously we do because of the circumstances, but I'm not going to put too much emphasis on it. I would like to do well. We will put out a strong side but it's not the be all and end all of our season. We are certainly very focused on the NRL season - certainly I am."

As much as Johnson is keen on playing at the Nines, he's mindful of the bigger picture.

"I don't want people to get the idea I am putting everything into this," he said. "We have a long season ahead and that is still the priority. If I'm not feeling right for it, if I've got any doubt in my head, I won't play. I'm not going to be silly about it."

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