The Warriors’ eight-year love affair with Shaun Johnson came to a dramatic end when the club granted the superstar halfback an immediate release from the final year of his contract. Now David Skipwith reveals the events that led to the falling out between the club and its once favourite son.

COMMENT

Shaun Johnson had a million reasons to stay with the Warriors for one more year.

The highest paid player in the club's history also had a decent chance to help the side build on this year's top eight appearance and make a tilt at a long-awaited premiership.

But even a seven-figure paycheck and the lure of a historic title win wasn't enough for the 28-year-old halfback to stick around at Mt Smart Stadium and prove he deserved another contract extension.

Advertisement

Johnson is used to having things his way. It's how it's been since the former Golden Boot winner bolted into first grade with the best sidestep since Brad Fittler.

And even in the biggest divorce in the Warriors' 25-year history, Johnson got his way.

The Warriors confirmed the inevitable on Wednesday in granting Johnson's demand for an immediate release from the final year of his lucrative contract.

Meeting request rejected

The search now begins for a replacement No 7 for 2019 and beyond.

The Warriors have few options on hand currently and CEO Cameron George and coach Stephen Kearney are under the blowtorch from upset fans for allowing this situation to unfold.

Neither anticipated things would unravel as they have. Both expected Johnson would be on deck next season, but events over the last three days are said to have left them with no choice but to cut the club's top point scorer loose.

Johnson has attracted plenty of sympathy but must share some responsibility for his role in the soap opera.

Firstly, Johnson claimed he was unaware the club would not be rushing to offer him a contract extension.

Apparently, it was news to him last month, while on the Kiwis' end of year tour of England, he read the Herald's report that he was free to explore his options and test his market value.

Even in the biggest divorce in the Warriors' 25-year history, Shaun Johnson got his way. Photo / Getty
Even in the biggest divorce in the Warriors' 25-year history, Shaun Johnson got his way. Photo / Getty

Outraged fans are offended by the suggestion the club didn't alert Johnson to their plans but there are strict rules in place around how clubs can discuss contractual matters with players.

These talks must be conducted through a player's agent or with all three parties together.

However, the Warriors had, in fact, informed his manager of this very detail, in September - at least two weeks prior to New Zealand's test win over Australia in Auckland.

Upon arriving back in Auckland, Johnson told media he was still waiting to hear from anyone at the Warriors regarding the situation.

Except Kearney, who was in the US on a fact-finding mission, surveying facilities at NBA franchises together with members of the Warriors leadership group, took time to call an upset Johnson in the UK.

It's understood he assured Johnson nothing had changed.

He was still a part of plans for next year.

All he needed to do was worry about performing well and a new contract would take care of itself.

Following the Kiwis' return home, a disgruntled Johnson and his agent rebuffed a request from the club to have a meeting and work through their differences.

The Warriors' views on Johnson then dimmed further after the club's international players were called in to undergo medicals before going on their end of season holidays.

Warriors CEO Cameron George speaks to the media about Shaun Johnson's future with the club. Photo / Photosport
Warriors CEO Cameron George speaks to the media about Shaun Johnson's future with the club. Photo / Photosport

The Herald understands it was put to the club's leadership group that it would be beneficial for the test players to join the rest of the squad at pre-season training for one week in late December, so that the entire NRL group could work together before breaking up for the Christmas holidays.

It was proposed the test players would then be given a week's leave later in January or February.

New front-row signing Leeson Ah Mau is believed to have leaped at the opportunity to settle in quickly and get to know his new teammates.

One other Kiwi player was open to the idea but is unable to due to a pre-booked overseas family holiday.

When Johnson, still wounded by the club's stance, was asked if he was open to taking part, he allegedly refused, citing the Rugby League Player's Association agreement that meant players are entitled to six weeks off annually.

Tensions continued to simmer over the last fortnight but the Warriors are believed to have remained open to reaching some middle ground and waited for him to agree to a sit-down.

But the gulf widened on Monday, when Johnson, who has previously complained about the negatives of social media, used Facebook to go public with an emotional post in which he informed followers that "they have told me again at this stage they won't be offering me anything".

Afternoon team! After reading through a few of your comments on my last post I thought its best I clear a couple things...

Posted by Shaun Johnson on Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Warriors have refuted that claim before Johnson contacted the club to arrange a meeting with his manager Peter Brown, together with George, Kearney, and recruitment manager Peter O'Sullivan, for Tuesday morning.

It is understood that the group had barely sat down before Johnson informed the club he wanted out ASAP.

Changing of the guard

His departure is now confirmed but the Warriors stopped being Johnson's team long ago.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's arrival at the club in 2016 signaled the changing of the guard in terms of who the club's real marquee player is.

The inspirational Warriors captain and Dally M medal-winning fullback not only brings attacking brilliance and defensive steel, but also consistency and a hard-nosed approach to performing each week in games and on the training paddock.

Every single day.

The same cannot be said of Johnson.

Club sources have revealed that though the two players may be on similar wages the discrepancy in attitude and commitment between the pair is like night and day.

Tuivasa-Sheck is always mindful of his responsibilities of leading the way and setting standards for younger less experienced players, constantly doing extras and striving for perfection, the Herald was told.

Johnson, however, does not have the same reputation.

Within the Warriors, there have been long-held frustrations over his work ethic and attitude towards training.

Unlike Tuivasa-Sheck, or retired club legend Simon Mannering, Johnson is not the first to training and the last to leave. Constantly working on the one-percenters - kicking and sharp-shooting for goal, for example - is not his go.

His fragile confidence and inability to accept or brush aside criticism – whether it be constructive, harsh, or unjustified - from the five coaches that have mentored him throughout his career, fans, or the media, is well known.

His petulant "youse got your way" outburst following the Kiwis' World Cup semifinal loss to Fiji last year epitomised his defensive mindset.

That delicate temperament resurfaced again recently - even after he was awarded the man of match award following the Kiwis' shock win over the Kangaroos - when he remarked: "It's just nice to be standing here talking to you guys after a positive win. Obviously, a lot of the time I'm at the front when things aren't going well."

But forget about the good times, leadership and accepting responsibility for his short-comings as a player or poor performances have never been strengths of his.

Concerns over whether Johnson is the right player to lead the Warriors to grand final glory – or even regular playoff appearances – are justified.

Having helped the club this season to just their second finals appearance since 2011, Johnson then went missing in action in the qualifying-final loss to Penrith in Sydney.

It continued a familiar trend that goes against the grain of what's expected of a big money playmaker.

The Warriors now have plenty of cash to spend on new talent and may search for a short-term cut-price option in the halves, if a big name organiser fails to appear on the market.

If they fail to land anyone suitable, Kearney may ask versatile back Peta Hiku to slot into five-eighth and shift Blake Green into the halfback role, or throw an opportunity to one of the club's youngsters, while looking to bolster their forward pack.

It may not bring them a title next year, or any time soon, but that never seemed imminent with Johnson wearing the No 7 jersey either.

Breaking up is never easy, but in this case it could be the best thing for all involved.