The Warriors' decision to re-sign Shaun Johnson on a two-year deal - after leaving the club in somewhat acrimonious circumstances in 2018 - sent shockwaves through the NRL on Friday. Michael Burgess has the inside story.
Around 9pm last Friday night, Warriors' chief executive Cameron George received a simple, but succinct, message on his phone.
"Mate - What about Shaun Johnson?" read the text, from the club's recruitment manager Peter O'Sullivan.
O'Sullivan, who had just watched another impressive display from the Kiwi halfback in Cronulla's 26-24 win over the Cowboys, representing the Sharks' fourth successive victory, had been monitoring Johnson for a few weeks.
O'Sullivan decided he had seen enough, and George green-lighted the next step.
"I support that. Go through the process and let me know," replied George.
That began a chain of events that has culminated in Johnson's shock return to the club, with a two-year deal finalised on Friday morning.
The news will be well received by most of the club's fanbase, many of whom thought the day would never come.
Johnson left in difficult circumstances in November 2018 – after a sequence of events that reflected badly on all parties involved – and it was felt that his ship had sailed, after 162 Warriors appearances over eight seasons.
But he's back, after a process that was remarkably swift. O'Sullivan instigated discussions with Johnson's manager Peter Brown last weekend, which confirmed the 30-year-old's interest in coming home.
Warriors owner Mark Robinson and consultant Phil Gould then met with Johnson last Wednesday in Auckland.
"That wasn't really planned, we just realised that everyone was in New Zealand," said George. "They were really impressed with Shaun and what his plans were, how much it meant to him."
George and Johnson then had a long phone conversation on Thursday morning – partly to "clear the air" over his 2018 exit – before a group Zoom call was set up for that afternoon.
That conversation, which included Johnson, Brown, O'Sullivan and Warriors coach Nathan Brown, nutted out the details of the offer, which was agreed by Friday morning.
The process was quick - "Shaun expressed interest in returning home and we seized on the opportunity," said George – but needed to be, with at least two other clubs also interested in Johnson.
The Warriors have been looking for an experienced half for some time. They made a big play for Jahrome Hughes in March and recently expressed an interest in Gareth Widdop.
Earlier this month Johnson was told by incoming Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon that he wasn't part of the plans for 2022, which then saw him linked to several Sydney clubs, as well as the Broncos and Raiders.
But the Warriors hierarchy had been impressed with his form, since his return from an Achilles injury and quickly decided he was the best available playmaker.
"The footy guys have been keeping an eye on Shaun's return to play," said George. "Shaun kept ticking the right boxes for us, plus he has had a huge association with our club. We looked at what was in the market for this kind of role and we kept coming back to Shaun."
George insisted that any mutual acrimony around Johnson's 2018 departure, when he sought a release with a year left on his contract after the club had said publicly he was free to test the market, was "all in the past".
"We are professionals," said George. "There was nothing to sort out. We have cleared the air in our own way and that is a discussion that Shaun and I had."
"We are very much on the same page. We care about the club and care about what we are doing over the next couple of years. I am 200 per cent behind Shaun coming back.
"Time helps everything but we are not looking back. Those decisions were made at the time and it was what it was, everyone has learned something and I am equal to anyone else in that situation.
"Shaun and I are very excited about working together again. Probably the last thing I said to him on the phone was 'let's do this thing together and take this club to a space it has never been to'."
George revealed Johnson couldn't conceal his excitement during their phone call.
"He said 'I can't believe I am having this conversation with you - I never thought I would be back at the club''," said George. "His passion and desire for the Warriors have never wavered. Even when he was away, he had a connection with the club."