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

Rugby League: Johnson pivotal to extending Kiwis run

Despite question marks over his form, playmaker Shaun Johnson remains key to New Zealand hopes tonight of a fourth straight win, writes Michael Burgess.
In the Kiwis squad, no one is closer to Foran than Johnson. Photo / Getty Images
In the Kiwis squad, no one is closer to Foran than Johnson. Photo / Getty Images

It's nothing new for Shaun Johnson to come into an Anzac test under pressure. It's been that way every year since his Kiwis debut in 2012, usually because the match comes in the middle of a spluttering season start for the Warriors.

But this year has been the perfect storm for Johnson. Not only have the Warriors underperformed despite a strong roster, but the energy drinks-prescription medicines saga blew up as the Kiwis assembled last Monday. And to compound matters, there is the ongoing concern over Kieran Foran's personal well-being.

In the Kiwis squad, no one is closer to Foran than Johnson. The halves duo enjoy each other's company, and are roommates on international duty.

Indeed, some of the seeds of the current run of success were sown in their Brisbane hotel room, days before the opening Four Nations test in 2014. Neither had experienced victory over the Kangaroos, but were determined to end the streak.

"We spoke about it [a lot]," said Johnson. "Every second we got, we would remind each other that we are sick of losing. The frustration had been building [and] we just wanted to beat them."

Johnson and Foran had outstanding games in that 30-12 victory, and the halfback has been arguably the most influential player across the current three-game winning streak over the Australians. He has scored crucial tries in each victory, contributed two other try assists and been involved for another five touchdowns.

Remember the dancing feet, sidesteps and then a huge pass for Manu Vatuvei in the 2014 Four Nations final? Or the burst of pace that left Greg Inglis for dead in the same game? He helped create both of Vatuvei's tries last year in Brisbane, before breaking Australian resolve with a typical solo effort close to halftime.

Tonight, Johnson will be in the spotlight again - probably more than ever. He is the only experienced member of a makeshift spine, and the absence of Foran and Issac Luke means all the kicking responsibilities rest on his shoulders. The Kangaroos will target him relentlessly, aware he is the only genuine playmaker in the Kiwis side.

But Johnson, for all the questions over his inconsistent displays at club level, rarely lets down his country.

Since his test debut, only one dud display comes to mind - the 2013 World Cup final, when more than half the team were off their game. Otherwise he has always risen to the occasion.

Johnson thrives in the Kiwis environment, where he is just one of the boys, rather than the central focus as happens at Mt Smart.

Coach Stephen Kearney also knows how to get the best out of him, and he enjoys playing behind the current New Zealand pack, arguably one of the best in Kiwis history.

"We'll be trying to lay a good platform for guys like Shaun to do their thing," said Jason Taumalolo. "If we can do that, I'm sure Shaun will enjoy all the time and space to run around. He is a good ball runner as much as a playmaker, so if we can give him the space he needs, he can pull off the [kind of] plays he is capable of."

Johnson is also building a remarkable test try scoring record. He has already scored eight in just 14 tests, a strike rate superior to any Kiwis halfback of the modern era. By the end of this year, Johnson could overtake both Stacey Jones (12 tries) and Gary Freeman (10), and go on to set records that may never be broken.

The Johnson effect

In the three successive wins over Australia, the Kiwis have scored a total of 13 tries. Of those, Shaun Johnson has:

- Scored three tries

- Contributed two try assists

- Been directly involved in five others (made the third-last or penultimate pass, or kicked, in a try-scoring movement).

- NZ Herald

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