It's 10 years since Shaun Johnson made his first-grade debut, but has he fulfilled his potential? In this exclusive interview with Michael Burgess, Johnson opens up on Warriors regrets, the toughest loss of his career, life after footy and fatherhood.
Shaun Johnson doesn't want to put any time limits on his NRL career, even though he knows he can't play forever.
Johnson has had cause to reflect recently, as June marked 10 years since his first-grade debut, when he ran out on a rainy night at the Sydney Football Stadium against the Roosters, wearing the No 18 jersey.
It's been a mostly spectacular, sometimes rocky road for the kid from Whangaparaoa, who has been arguably the biggest homegrown league star out of this country since Benji Marshall.
Johnson, who will miss the Sharks' clash with the Knights on Friday due to a groin injury, is no longer the hot-stepping genius of days gone by, and time has diluted his top-end pace.
But he remains elusive, sharp and a genuine game breaker, and the 32-test Kiwi has been one of the most effective players in the NRL since the season resumption, helping the Sharks into the top eight after a poor start (1-4).
Johnson's dramatic departure from the Warriors in November 2018 could have been the catalyst for a downturn but he has prospered in the shire, with an NRL-high 20 try assists this season (the next best is 14), and he is ready to embrace a new decade.
"It is really crazy to think," Johnson tells the Herald. "I don't feel like it has been 10 years and it is a weird feeling. I still feel like I have got so much left."
"Back in the day you had someone play 10 years in the comp and they were seen as a veteran and an elder. I'm 30 this year (September) and I guess I am starting to get over the hill a bit, but I definitely don't feel like that."
That's why Johnson doesn't want to put a time frame on his NRL career. He won't emulate the longevity of former Shark Paul Gallen (37), as it's difficult for halves to play beyond their mid-thirties, but Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk both played into their 36th year and 35-year-old Marshall is still going strong.
"I still feel like I am as much in love with the game as I was when I came into it," says Johnson. "There are some things that I wish I could still do, that I can't do anymore but there are also a lot of things now that I know I wasn't doing back then.
"I don't have a set date, a set age. As long as I still have that passion and I am still contributing to my team at a high level I don't have any limits on that."
Johnson was earmarked for greatness from the beginning, with Andrew Johns labelling him as a future star in 2009, after his first game in the Under-20 competition.
But it hasn't always been easy, with injuries, form fluctuations and the weight of a nation on his shoulders during his time at the Warriors.
"To say that 68-kilo kid who came in with all the hype played 10 seasons in the comp and is going to play more ... I should be pretty proud," says Johnson. "It has been a long journey. In my eyes it's the toughest competition in the world – the [most] physical, the fastest, the most intense."
But has he fulfilled his potential?
In 2011 it looked like he could become the greatest halfback in the sport, with his bewitching range of natural talents. His magic has lit up the NRL over a long period, with 191 try assists, 68 tries and 168-line breaks from 194 games.
But a career tally of six finals matches seems like a poor return, even allowing for the varying strength of Warriors' teams during his Mt Smart tenure.
"People are going to have different opinions, whether I have reached or lived up to my potential and that's up to them," says Johnson. "No one knows me better than I know myself."
"[But] with everything that has been said about me over my career, the ups and downs, the positives, the inconsistencies, whatever people have said about me, to play 10 years in the NRL you have to be pretty consistent."
"You need to be doing something pretty well, regularly, so for me to reflect on that, and see that as proof, shows that I wasn't just a waste of talent."
Tony Iro still remembers seeing Johnson for the first time, playing for the Orewa College 1st XV in 2007.
"Every time he touched the ball, he either set up a try or scored one," recalls Iro, then the Warriors Under-20s coach.
"I thought he's obviously an athlete, he's not that big but he could turn into something pretty special. And fortunately his hero was Stacey Jones, so that made it a lot easier to get him down to the club."
At school, Johnson was the ultimate "sports nut", according to Orewa College PE teacher Craig Ashton, with athletics, basketball and AFL on his resume, along with rugby and touch.
"He was a normal lad at school," says Ashton. "He was just one of the boys but exceptionally talented in the sporting endeavours that he did."
He was also driven, approaching Ashton, a former New Zealand AFL representative, for help with his kicking, when he was in Year 10. The duo practised every Friday afternoon for his final four years at the school.
"He was very coachable, keen to learn, always worked hard," says Ashton. "Cheeky, but that was fine - he had a personality about him."
Back then Johnson's main pursuit was touch rugby, and he inspired the Orewa team to second place at the nationals in his final year.
"It was a pretty good achievement," says Ashton. "Everyone knew about him from the previous year so he was heavily marked but he was too smart and knew the game better than anyone else."
Among his smorgasbord of sports, Johnson had also turned out for the Hibiscus Coast Raiders but he arrived at the Warriors with a lot to learn.
"He was going to take a little bit longer than an Aussie kid because he didn't have a consistent league background," says Iro.
"He wasn't like an [Andrew] Johns, [Cooper] Cronk or [Brett] Kimmorley that had come through that tough schoolboy footy. He had to adapt to the brutal nature of the game and learn the subtleties."
Johnson made an instant impression in the Holden Cup but a combination of injuries, and a wisely cautious approach from NRL coach Ivan Cleary, delayed his first grade debut until June 2011.
"Shaun understood he would have to get bigger, stronger and smarter pretty quickly," says Iro. "He's always been a decent trainer, got a good engine so he can run all day and you put him around a group of footballers, that can be pretty hard on you, in a physical sense and you get swept along for the ride."
Iro, who observed Johnson at close quarters for the best part of a decade at Mt Smart, says it is difficult to assess his career so far.
"In terms of reaching his potential - how many players do?" says Iro. "Most players if you ask them that question would say no, I haven't quite got where I wanted to go. He's probably no different."
"He has probably struggled with consistency at times but he is a guy that can win footy games for you."
"Sometimes the expectations were a little bit inflated for him - that he had to win every game he played in. That probably affected him a little bit."
"It's a difficult one. Has he reached his ultimate potential? Probably not. But I don't know what his ultimate potential was. He was always going to take time to find his feet, in terms of not having the grounding of league built into him. But he's still a very special player."
Ask Johnson for the favourite moments of his NRL career, and he hesitates, before listing a few.
Aside from his debut against the Roosters, there was his 150th first grade game in Christchurch, which went beautifully to script; "We played so well, I had all the family in the stands and my brother was on the field after the game interviewing me for Sky" - but mainly it was team-based memories.
"Playing in other boys' milestones, we always used to get up for Simon's [Mannering] or Manu's [Vatuvei] big occasions. They were such cool games."
"And going to the  grand final and seeing what it did to the whole country. That was awesome. Even the 2018 season, seeing how much the game grows when you do well."
He nominates the 2015 Warriors' victory over the Storm – best remembered for Nathan Friend's somersault between the legs pass which made the ESPN plays of the week – as one of his favourite matches.
"Mt Smart was rocking; we were playing your classic Warriors football," says Johnson. "The Storm were killing it at the time, and we beat them with a great brand of footy. Such an awesome night."
Johnson ran for a game-high 213 metres, scored a brilliant solo try, had a hand in four others and made two line breaks.
During that campaign he was probably at the peak of his powers for the Warriors.
They were fifth at the end of July, but the wheels fell off with his season-ending ankle injury against Manly and they lost their last six matches without their creative fulcrum. Johnson had recorded eight tries and 15 try assists from 18 matches.
Ask Johnson about the toughest loss of his career, and the answer comes instantly.
"My last ever game for the Warriors," says Johnson. "That still burns me. I just played so s***. It was all there, we had set the season up mint and from a personal point of view I played one of the poorest games of my career in what was the biggest moment of my career, in my eyes."
It's the first time Johnson has spoken in detail about that night, where the Warriors barely fired a shot against a clinical Penrith side, losing 27-12.
Until then the campaign had been outrageously good.
The Warriors won their first five games and 10 of their first 14. They beat five of the top eight sides and finished two points shy of the first placed Roosters, finally returning to the playoffs after seven seasons.
The Warriors started promisingly against the Panthers and led 12-2, with Johnson contributing to both tries.
But they went steadily backwards from there, not helped by the loss of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 12 minutes before halftime. The Warriors gave up 25 unanswered points. Johnson copped heavy criticism and says it was warranted.
"I didn't perform," says Johnson. "It was such a massive game. We hadn't made finals for however many years and I needed to deliver. That's what my mindset was going in; go in there, kill it and let's get this rolling ... let's get going."
Not many Warriors emerged with credit, with the pack badly outmuscled, but Johnson isn't looking for excuses.
"It wasn't all me and I'm not saying I was the only reason we lost but before I even looked at anyone else's performance I was dissecting my own game," says Johnson.
"I was thinking 'Far out man'. The season you had, the season we had, comes down to 80 minutes of football and you let yourself down, let your teammates down. It's as simple as that."
Johnson admits that the flat manner of the defeat, may have been a contributing factor in his controversial Mt Smart exit, "I reckon if we win that game, and we push on a couple more games, maybe I'm not sitting in Australia talking to you right now ... that's the way I look at it."
Johnson has been in the headlines recently, due to the Kevin Proctor biting incident, mainly for speaking publicly after the case before it was heard.
That Instagram post was misguided, but reflected a desire to be open with his fans.
Johnson has always been a popular interviewee – he's usually refreshingly honest and is an eloquent analyst of the game – but has also struggled with some of the criticism that has come his way, especially via social media.
As much as Johnson wants to extend his career, he's also looking forward to the next chapter.
"I'm really excited for what's after footy ... I'm not a believer that Shaun Johnson the rugby league player is the best version of myself. I feel like this is just a stepping stone into what I am going to do next."
That phase began last month, with wife Kayla Cullen giving birth to their first daughter, Millah Malvina Johnson.
"I hope that becoming a father is going to bring out the best in me. I'd like to think the best part of my life is still to come."