David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

League: Foran backing Johnson's form: He's tougher now

Shaun Johnson (left) and Kieran Foran have formed a bond on and off the field for the Warriors. Photo / Photosport
Shaun Johnson (left) and Kieran Foran have formed a bond on and off the field for the Warriors. Photo / Photosport

New Warriors five-eighth Kieran Foran says halves partner Shaun Johnson has embraced a tougher playing style and taken his game to a new level this season.

The former Manly and Parramatta playmaker believes recent criticism of Johnson's form is unfair and says it's evident the No7 has been playing with greater physicality and grit over the first five rounds.

"He has always been competitive but I think we've seen a new side to Shaun this year," said Foran. "He's playing tougher and he'd be the first one to admit that.

"I'm not saying he hasn't previously, because you've got to be tough to play first grade, but he's playing tougher."

Since making his NRL debut in 2011, critics of Johnson have claimed he lacks the game management and application to match his individual flair and running game.

But Foran believes Johnson has made big strides in those areas and along with his under-rated defence, says his ability to run tough support lines and remain on-task during difficult times in games go unnoticed.

"He's been competing for the full 80 and he's been fighting tooth and nail to get that win," he said.

"He's taking the s*** carries, he's putting his body and his head where he never used to, and he's not missing tackles. He's in the thick of it and if he can get that part right and you put the flair on top of it, he's capable of great things."

Coach Stephen Kearney agrees Johnson has made subtle but important changes to his game and taking on greater responsibility within the side.

"What I have seen is him taking some real ownership of the team," said Kearney.

"His responsibility, in terms of what his role is within the team, means that he is really playing tougher and stepping forward. I certainly have seen a development in that area."

Foran has sympathy for Johnson, who he says is unfairly judged in comparison to other top-line NRL halfbacks with vastly contrasting and more traditional playing styles.

He throws himself in the latter group, admitting much of his own play and effectiveness is built on a more systematic and methodical approach to the game.

Neither style is better or worse, he argues, but one can benefit the other, as evidenced by the success he and Johnson have enjoyed while playing together for the Kiwis and in last week's win over the Titans.

"People often say 'why can't he be a controlling half like a Cooper Cronk or Johnathan Thurston or Mitchell Pearce', but he's not that sort of player," said Foran.

"I'm probably more that sort of player because I'm not as gifted as Shaun.

"We complement each other because he's got the flair that I don't have and I've probably got he straightness that can help him out.

"A player like me has to methodically break a team down because I don't have the ability of Shaun. He does it in other ways.

"My whole career has been about watching video and looking at where I think a team will go weak in a defensive line and which player might come out of the line, because I can't step three blokes and create something. I'll go to the line and play short and bait them there. Then I might go down again a second time and see what [a defender] does and then, on the third time, I might pull the trigger and get him.

"Shaun can pull the trigger on the first play because he's got blistering speed and footwork like we've never seen and great vision and off the cuff play."

Both players are off-contract and uncertainty surrounds where they will continue their careers beyond this season. The Warriors are intent on keeping them together and although Foran and Johnson have denied rumours linking them to moves to Brisbane and Melbourne, they remain on the open market.

Ahead of Sunday's clash against the Eels outfit he captained last year, Foran insists the standards expected of his halves partner need to be tempered.

"He's the face of New Zealand rugby league and with that comes enormous expectation and pressure.

"He's seen as the saviour of the Warriors every week. It's not right. People need to be more realistic.

"Shaun doesn't have to save the match every time and when he doesn't he doesn't deserve to be crucified for it."

- NZ Herald

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