David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

NRL Nines: Johnathan Thurston says Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson will return from injury a better player

North Queensland Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston believes Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson will return a better and stronger player after recovering from last year's season ending ankle injury.

Thurston's body has taken a battering throughout a 268-game 15-year career, but the 32-year-old veteran halfback has learned to overcome the physical and psychological trauma after suffering serious knocks and says those experiences toughened him up in both body and mind.

After six months on the sidelines, Johnson will make his much anticipated playing return when he captains the Warriors at this weekend's Downer NRL Auckland Nines, and despite the expected nerves surrounding his comeback, Thurston is confident he'll come back better than before.

"It (injuries) tests you mentally as well as physically," said Thurston. "He'll be better for it during the season obviously once he's had a few runs under his belt.

"There's always that little voice inside your head that takes you back to that injury but you've just got to push past it and no doubt he will.

"He looks like a really professional kid and does work really hard and I'm sure he'll be back bigger than ever."

Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson is helped from the field after breaking his ankle against Manly last July. Photo/Getty
Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson is helped from the field after breaking his ankle against Manly last July. Photo/Getty

With concerns over player burnout and injury, Thurston has sat out the last two Nines and his involvement this year will be limited to Sunday's charity goal-kicking showdown against league immortal Andrew Johns, superboot Darryl Halligan and former All Blacks and Blues great Carlos Spencer.

The jury is out on whether the Warriors are wise in fielding Johnson in the short-form preseason competition, but despite wrapping himself in cotton wool, Thurston insists the Nines is worthy of every club's full attention.

"Injuries are a part of the game so some people do get injured at these types of events but it's a great spectacle for fans and I know the boys love playing in it that's for sure," he said.

"It would have been nice (to play) but I've just got to prepare for the World Club Challenge (against UK Super League champions Leeds), which we leave for next week.

"But we've fielded a pretty strong side so we've done well. We won it the first year (2014) and then we made the quarterfinals last year.

"There's a fair few of our boys from the grand final that are playing in the Nines so it should be fun."

Thurston acknowledged expectations are high that the Warriors will perform this season, after recruiting marquee signings Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke, but he believes Johnson's game will flourish further thanks to the arrival of tough and reliable former Cronulla No7 Jeff Robson.

"(Robson will add) A lot of stability, he just gets the job done," he said. "He'll take a lot of pressure off Shaun.

"He's had so much pressure on him with that team and obviously having Roger and Issac Luke that they've recruited that will take so much pressure off Johnson.

"He'll be able to just play his natural game and that's what they need. They need the rest of the boys to do their job so he can do his. They're going to be a very strong side this year."

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