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

League: NRL title aim of magic Johnson

Shaun Johnson scored a spectacular try against the Broncos in 2011. Photo / photosport.nz
Shaun Johnson scored a spectacular try against the Broncos in 2011. Photo / photosport.nz

One picture takes pride of place in Shaun Johnson's garage at home. It's a large framed photo, presented to him by the Warriors, of his spectacular try against the Broncos in 2011. He beat seven players to score, with a run that seemed to defy physics, as he sidestepped defenders at full pace.

"That was a crazy moment for me," says Johnson. "Growing up, I'd always watched games at Suncorp but that was my first time playing there. To do it against the likes of Darren Lockyer and Sam Thaiday was amazing. My mates were in disbelief that I was able to do it at that level and I probably surprised myself a bit."

That moment, later voted try of the season, was one of several for the highlight reels in his debut year. There were other long range specials against the Tigers, Cowboys and Panthers and the coup de grace was his game-winning play in Melbourne to take the Warriors to the grand final.

Back then, he was the rocket-heeled wonder kid, running rings around hardened veterans and doing near-impossible things on a league field.

But that season was a blessing and a curse. Johnson scored six tries in 16 games, and also had 18 try assists, including two in the grand final loss to the Sea Eagles in a spectacular rookie year.

It probably set unrealistic expectations of what was possible, with pundits hoping to see magic moments every week. It has led to frustrations from some fans, who want more from their leading man.

Johnson has developed his game since 2011 but is still tagged as inconsistent, especially compared with contemporaries such as Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk.

"I don't agree with that," says Johnson. "Early in my career, it was probably a fair comment but over the last two or three seasons I've definitely closed that gap between my off day and my on day.

A lot of people still distinguish my off day as I don't score two tries, make some steps and do a line break. But we might win that game and I'll be doing the little things around the park, the supports, making sure we are executing our plays, kicking well - the things we hold important."

Sometimes it feels like Johnson can't win. The 26-year-old has to be a solid, reliable organiser and a game breaker; expected to create, as well as destroy.

His organisational skills might not be at the levels of Cronk or Thurston, but he is the best playmaker the Warriors have and the team struggles without him.

He's also still has the magic; witness the game-winning plays against the Roosters and Panthers last year.

"My game is totally different, in what you view as Shaun performing well compared with what another halfback does to perform well," says Johnson.

"People expect me to do the flashy, brilliant stuff but at the same time my job is to control the team.

That is what is important to the team. They don't care about the flashy stuff. I don't care about the flashy stuff.

As long as I am getting my job done for the team and I have the number seven on my back that's all I care about."

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney has similar sentiments.

"All I want Shaun to do in this team is do his job and do it well," said Kearney. "He understands that. If everyone else is doing their job and Shaun is doing his, we know what he can do when he is playing well. I'm happy where he is at the moment."

Two-time Dally M winner Cronk is an unabashed admirer.

"Every time we play Shaun Johnson there are about 10 clips on his skill set and his ability to play," said Cronk. "You know he is a pretty dangerous player when there are that many clips. He is obviously a massive threat [and] provides a skill set that not many other halfbacks have. You can't stop the elite players like him in the competition ... all you can do is limit their impact."

Johnson is one of the first Generation Y sports heroes in New Zealand. He maintains an active presence on social media - particularly Instagram, which is a useful tool, until it goes bad.

Midway through last season, Johnson went public about the cyber abuse he had received, admitting it could even play on his mind during games.

He's a bit more circumspect now. He says it is his choice to be on social media - "So I have to take the good with the bad ... I can't just read the good stuff" - and he also knows when to turn off."

But Johnson, who admits to satisfaction when he silences his critics, but has no regrets about the profile he has cultivated.

"I realise I put myself in this position. Growing up as a kid, I always wanted to be the next Stacey Jones or Benji Marshall. With that comes expectation and responsibility and although sometimes it's a bit rough when things aren't going well there are other times when I walk down the street and a kid will run up to me and say 'Can I have a photo?'

"So why look at the negatives, if you can look at the positives. There is good and bad in everything you do, whether you are the front guy or the back guy, it's just at different levels."

Johnson is unsigned beyond this year, and has considered other offers, but seems likely to stay at Mt Smart. "Things are progressing along and we are talking," says Johnson. "There is no rush, but it would be good to get things locked up soon."

Johnson is about to begin the most important season of his career. Over the past few years, he has become the face of the Warriors, and his fame now transcends the sport.

A documentary about a recent family trip to his mother's homeland of Laos aired last week, and there was another Bendon modelling shot. Johnson and Silver Ferns girlfriend Kayla Cullen regularly grace the social pages, and he has recently launched his own clothing label SJ into upmarket stores.

"Shaun is not league 24/7," said one associate. "He's dedicated to the sport but has other interests and so much more going on in his life."

But ultimately, all that really matters is what happens on the field. That's what Thurston, Cronk, Cameron Smith and Lockyer are revered for. Johnson has already accomplished a lot but has yet to truly seal his legacy. He's seen as an underachiever, at the forefront of too many failed Warriors campaigns.

This year could change that. Johnson has a stable roster around him, and the familiar voice of Kearney as head coach. He'll also - from round three - have Kieran Foran beside him, one of the best five-eighths in the game. There is no room for regrets, if onlys and what-might-have-beens this year.

"You always want to be performing and playing your best," said Johnson. "Sometimes in games things don't work out but the things I can control are effort plays [and] that is what I am going to base my game on this year.

"Errors might happen - they might not - but as long as I am in the moment, putting in the effort then I am confident I should be playing well most weeks. Since I joined this club I've wanted to win a comp for this team and that goal hasn't changed."

Johnson is eight points away from Stacey Jones' record points tally of 674 for the Warriors. Only five players have scored more tries for the Warriors in the 22-year history of the club.

- NZ Herald

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