Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: 'Everyman' fighting the criticism

Patience is the key to Shaun Johnson’s, and the Warriors’, much-needed comeback.
Shaun Johnson is expected to maintain effort over a full 80 minutes. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Shaun Johnson is expected to maintain effort over a full 80 minutes. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Are the Warriors faltering because Shaun Johnson is not performing - or is Johnson struggling because his team is playing below par?

It's a question that has become part of a recurring theme.

About this time of year the early post mortems about the Auckland club begin. It happened in 2012, 2013, 2014 and even last year, though the Warriors start was decent.

Johnson inevitably becomes the focal point for criticism and frustration, above just about anybody else in the squad.

Is that fair?

Certainly Johnson has the highest profile in the team, and more natural ability than almost anyone else in the NRL. And over the past few years, he's become the Warriors "everything" man; the best long kicking game, the best short kicking range, the goal kicker and the game breaker. He's also tasked with creating tries, scoring them himself and directing the side around the park.

But he is also expected to provide an 80 minute effort, and that's where he, like his team, has fallen down. Johnson can drift out of games, especially when the Warriors are struggling for momentum. He also has erratic moments, like missing touch from a penalty in the second minute against the Tigers, or a series of ill-timed last tackle plays against the Broncos.

But there is another side to the Johnson story. Since his NRL debut midway through 2011 he has played under five different coaches, as well as numerous assistants. Different messages, methods and ideas. He has been partnered with James Maloney, Thomas Leuluai, Chad Townsend and now Jeff Robson. There has been zero stability outside him, in the centres and on the wings and after more than 100 games at halfback he is now wearing the number six jersey.

Despite this, he has improved steadily. The defensive side of his game is unrecognisable from where it was in 2011, and he has become a much better organiser.

"Shaun is a more complete player than he was back there - there is no doubt about that," says former Kiwis and Warriors coach Frank Endacott. "But like any good half, he needs space and time [and] he needs to be behind a forward pack going well. Sometimes that happens, sometimes that doesn't."

Perhaps, as Johnson mentioned last week, we need to be patient, both with the Warriors' spine combination and Johnson's game.

"I've had this conversation before and I will say the same thing again - it takes time," said Johnson. "Me and Chad probably didn't click until he decided to leave. It's something you can't rush. [And people] expect me to run the ball and do all the magic stuff I was doing before I got injured but it doesn't happen like that. I've learnt not to get frustrated, I know that part of my game will come back to me."

Last year was a sobering reminder of Johnson's importance at Mt Smart. There were other factors (including other injuries), but the team fell apart in his absence. If Johnson can start to regain his best form, beginning on Monday against the Newcastle Knights, the season should take on a much rosier hue. And then the criticism will stop - for a while.

- NZ Herald

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