Warriors coach Nathan Brown is confident that the club will welcome an improved version of Shaun Johnson when he returns next season.
Johnson left at the end of the 2018 season in difficult circumstances, and it was a surprise in some quarters when his homecoming was confirmed last Friday, in what was a pragmatic decision from the club.
Speaking in depth for the first time on the signing, Brown said Johnson has improved on and off the field during his time at the Sharks.
"Sometimes players need to leave clubs," said Brown. "In Shaun's time the club had a pretty lean trot so to go and play for a club like Cronulla who has had a lot of success would have been good for his development. The experience of seeing how other people do it would be great."
Johnson played in two finals series (2011 and 2018) across eight years at the Warriors. In contrast the Sharks have made the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons, with Johnson involved in the 2019 and 2020 runs to the finals, improving his all-round capabilities.
"He is probably not quite as quick as he once was [but] he's much more controlled between the ears," said Brown.
The coach also scotched suggestions that senior players had been lukewarm on the idea of Johnson returning, when it was first mooted in late April.
That was a theory spruiked by Paul Kent on NRL 360 and followed up by Australian media outlets, which Brown said had no foundation.
"When Shaun first came on the market 1) he was [just] off a serious injury and 2) we were still sussing out where we were as a club and what we were working with," explained Brown.
"[At that time] the senior players, all they did was support the decision by myself and the people higher up in the club in the shorter term.
"As we assessed it as time went on, obviously an experienced half was what we needed and once we mentioned it to the senior players they were very keen on the idea, more than keen to have Shaun back. He is going to bring an element of what we need to take us to another level."
There are similar hopes for halfback Chad Townsend, who has been parachuted straight into the team for Friday's clash with the Dragons.
Off the back of two training sessions it's tricky for Townsend – in such a key position – but Brown said it was a simple recipe for the 30-year-old.
"The things we need from Chad are probably his two best attributes," said Brown. "That's his talk and organisation, and his kicking game. They are the things we thought would help out the team in the short term. You can't beat experience and he's been very successful in his career."
Brown confirmed that Chanel Harris-Tavita could return before the end of the season – after avoiding surgery on his pectoral injury – and that he or Kodi Nikorima could then be used as back-up hookers, if there is a log jam in the halves with Townsend's presence.
Reece Walsh has been cleared to return to training, after an enforced isolation period for all players involved in State of Origin, but the extent of his hamstring strain won't be known until later in the week.
Friday's game is the beginning of a run of key matches and Brown agreed that a turnaround needs to begin soon.
"The key to us making a bit of a charge will come down to having a little bit of luck [with injuries] and keeping similar people out there and more importantly just being a little bit more consistent for a bit longer," said Brown
Prop Addin Fonua-Blake reaffirmed that anything is possible, despite a poor recent run.
"Belief is still pretty high," said Fonua-Blake. "We still believe we can make a good run towards the finals this year. The key message is keep competing, keep turning up and put yourself in the picture to win the game."