Shaun Johnson has begun to ponder life without the Warriors for probably the first time in his career.

It doesn't mean he is going to leave Auckland - far from it - but he is enough of a realist to know things change fast in professional sport.

Johnson, who will be a key man for the Kiwis in the Four Nations final at Anfield, is off contract at the end of next season. Usually by this time of year marquee players are locked up, to prevent other clubs from tabling bids after the November 1st deadline.

The Warriors are in discussions with Johnson's management but there hasn't been a sense of urgency about the deal. That's partly due to the uncertainty over the salary cap for 2018 and beyond, but has done nothing to ease fan anxieties about the prospect of a bidding war for his services.

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"I'd like to stay at the club," Johnson told the Herald on Sunday. "I've said that right along. But one thing I have learned since being in the NRL is that it's a business. I've seen players who have sat next to me in the locker room one day and they are gone the next.

"It's not as cut-throat as some of the sports overseas but, for us in New Zealand, we are not really used to it. Things can change very fast and I am not naive to that, not oblivious to that. I might not be here, who knows? We will leave that up to my manager and the club to decide."

Johnson has previously talked about being a one-club man, and in his heart the kid from the Hibiscus Coast would like nothing more than to bring success to his hometown team. But as he gets older - he turns 27 next year - each new contract assumes more importance.

"I don't want to rule out anything," he says. "I don't want to say, 'I'm going to commit to the Warriors for life' and I don't want to say, 'I'm gone, I don't want to be here'. It's all up in the air. Who knows what is going to happen to me?"

There is no sense that either party is particularly unhappy, but improvement is needed on both sides. There was some frustration at the club with Johnson's inconsistency last season, and he must be tired of the constant upheavals at the club, particularly with coaches and assistant coaches.

Johnson hasn't always played at his best and the Warriors are also guilty of not making the most of his talent. He played with a constantly changing back line last season and a forward pack that struggled to dominate opposing teams.

Despite that, he still managed a career-high 22 try assists (fifth in the NRL) and only Matt Moylan had more line break assists. He also contributed 14 line breaks and 10 tries. But as the Warriors' season unravelled, Johnson was again the target for plenty of criticism, both in conventional and social media.

He has talked in the past of letting it get to him but now says it is a tool for motivation.
"It does fire you up. Most people, whatever they do in life, don't like to hear people talk rubbish about them or say negative things. I'm driven by a lot of things - not just that - but there is that little fire there. When I play the way I want to play, I don't see as many of those comments. It's satisfying to quieten them. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't."

But has Johnson ever thought of ditching social media, given the grief it has given him in the past?

"If things aren't going well I'll definitely lie low," says Johnson. "I won't put anything on there that people might react to. [But] I'm going to keep being me. You can get caught up in the negative side of things but they are the minority. There is so much positive stuff out there. That's why I stay on social media, to thank them and show them what I am up to."

The upcoming Four Nations final marks two years since the greatest moment of Johnson's career to date, when he produced a virtuoso performance in Wellington as the Kiwis claimed the Four Nations. Later that year he was the recipient of the Golden Boot, officially the world's best player.

Life has been more complicated since then, but those memories drive him.

"The thought of winning is massive," he says. "I think back to when we did win, that feeling that you have achieved something. For those of us not involved in the finals series this year, it means even more - to achieve something and enjoy your break knowing you have done something you can be really proud of."

Johnson has had a mixed tournament. He was superb against England, then quiet in the 14-8 loss to Australia in Coventry until the final frenetic minutes when he made one try and almost scored another.

"I can understand people's frustrations when they don't see me do things until the 70th minute," he says. "It's hard for people to see the kick chases, the tackles you make, the support you do, the organising you do.

"[The game] in Coventry was a classic example. The reason I ran it in the 80th minute - when I almost scored - was because I had Trent Merrin in front of me, on a wide four. I didn't have that in the rest of the game. There is always more than meets the eye."

Monday's match will be won up front, but Johnson shoulders a huge burden.

In the absence of Thomas Leuluai, he'll need to do almost all of the kicking and playmaking duties, as well as producing some of the magic that has taunted the Kangaroos in the past.

"I know he is under a little bit of pressure at the moment, which probably makes him a little bit more dangerous," said Australian half Cooper Cronk. "But I also know every time we play Johnson - for Melbourne Storm or Australia - there are about 10 clips on his skill set and ability to play. You can't stop elite players like him. All you can do is limit their impact."

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