Cronulla Sharks captain Wade Graham has revealed that public criticism of teammate Shaun Johnson helped the Kiwis playmaker turn around a dismal run of form for the club.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Graham said the vast outcry from fans and commentators directed at Johnson after the club's 1-4 start to the season was a tipping point in helping Johnson focus on finding his stride.
"If you look back to a month ago, it was probably getting to a point it was hard to block out the criticism because it was coming from a lot of angles … and he probably made more of a determined effort to block it out on purpose and just focus on footy," Graham said.
One of those critics likely stung more than most. Melbourne Storm and Kangaroos halfback Cooper Cronk, a player Johnson holds in high regard, told Fox League right after the Sharks' first win of the season that Johnson was the reason the side had struggled.
"He can be the best player in the world but he just doesn't deliver enough for me, and if the Sharks are going to do something this year... Johnson needs to be the star," Cronk said.
"He just doesn't play with enough fast tempo and enough slow tempo, he just plays with the same speed the last couple of years."
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After picking apart the former Warrior's game, Cronk went so far as to say the Sharks had made a dud move in signing Johnson last season.
"Johnson won the Golden Boot in 2014, signed with the Sharks on a three-year deal... and, to be honest, he's fired blanks since arriving."
Since Cronk's comments, the Sharks have reeled off three straight wins with Johnson playing an important role in each, the renewed focus on his game paying dividends on and off the pitch.
"Whatever he did it has certainly worked for him because he has turned a corner in the public perception... something has clicked the public domain because he is getting less criticism, that's for sure," Graham said.
After often being criticised for a lack of consistency, along with the desire to take on the defensive line, Johnson is now leading the league in several key statistics during the Sharks' rise up the NRL ladder including try assists (12) and line engagements (63).
"We are trending in the right direction and everyone is getting a better understanding of how we are trying to play and what we are trying to achieve in a game and Shaun is getting a benefit from that," Graham said.