Despite all the hype in 2023, Shaun Johnson isn’t driven by individual accolades.
In the midst of a career-best year, the Warriors halfback is seen as one of the favourites for the Dally M medal, awarded to the NRL’s best player across the regular season.
Johnson is flattered by the talk – admitting it is a change from some past negative headlines – but remains focused on team goals, along with inspiring the next generation.
“It’s nice to be spoken about at an elite level, instead of getting bagged or told to retire,” said Johnson. “But it’s not why I play; it’s not a goal of mine to win the Dally M. The goal of mine is to win here as a team and just play my role in that. If I get recognised for how I’m doing my role within the team, then that’s nice.”
Johnson remains a cult figure, especially with the younger fans. After another impressive display in the Warriors’ 30-22 victory over the Tigers on Saturday – with a solid kicking and organising game, two try assists and a key hand in a third – the 32-year-old was among the last to emerge from the Warriors sheds after signing autographs and taking photos with fans at Waikato Stadium.
“It is really nice seeing kids out here,” said Johnson. “They’re holding up ‘Shaun for Dally M’ signs, they’re thinking about that stuff as a kid, and that’s all I want to do. If I can inspire some kids to make that sign and get out there and chuck that footy around, if that comes with it, then yeah, I’m all good with that.”
With voting behind closed doors since round 12, Johnson appears to be a top Dally M contender. He is leading the competition with 26 try assists, along with eight tries and nine line breaks. No one has managed more kick metres across the NRL than Johnson, while he has also landed a career-high 71 goals.
Beyond the statistics, though, it is his overall impact on the Warriors which has turned heads as the team sit third on the NRL ladder, with a remarkable 14-7 record.
Friday’s win was far from smooth – with the Warriors struggling to shake off the Tigers until the 76th minute – and the third consecutive scratchy victory, but Johnson isn’t concerned about the apparent dip.
“It’s not like a skill, something that we need time on the training field to do,” said Johnson. “A lot of it is mental; those were mental lapses we had, tries that we haven’t really conceded this year, and we don’t need to practice that. That’s individual accountability, lapses in concentration and understanding that it doesn’t matter where sides are on the table -at this time of year, you’ve got teams that are fighting for something.
“[But] two points is very important. In no week you are perfect; there is always going to be something that you got wrong, and there was more than one thing that we got wrong. But we found a way to win.”
Johnson is nursing a quadricep strain, which meant Adam Pompey took over the goal-kicking duties on Saturday, aside from the first conversion and a late penalty. He welcomes the break – backing Pompey and Luke Metcalf as able deputies – but hopes it will only be for a few weeks.
“Hopefully [soon], I can get some reps in and see how the quad pulls up,” said Johnson. “It’s something I enjoy doing and I want to be doing; if there’s a kick on the line for the game, I can’t sleep at night if I don’t take it.”
Johnson also paid tribute to prop Addin Fonua-Blake, who managed another mammoth effort, with 26 runs for 262 metres.
“He is the best front rower in the comp,” said Johnson. “People have been talking about how well I’m going, but it’s purely off the back of what Addin and the rest of the forward pack are doing, and he’s leading the way with that.”
Johnson’s home life has got busier since the arrival of his second child Sachi a month ago, but he credits his “amazing” wife Kayla for allowing him to stay focused on his sport.
“Kayla’s holding it down,” said Johnson. “She does a lot of heavy lifting and I can’t complain at all. So I’ve got it pretty good. The handful is certainly Millah, the toddler, but Kayla’s been amazing.”