When he sat up there wearing the old colors and again part of a club that should never have forced him out in the first place, he certainly looked like the old Shaun Johnson.
It was his first day in front of the media since returning to the Warriors, and he certainly sounded like the old Shaun Johnson as well.
“I got my kit bag in the car and I left quarantine and the first thing I did when I got home was put on my set and look at myself in the mirror as if it was my first day at school,” he said. Johnson.
“It was disbelief that I was actually back by being able to wear this set again and represent this club again.
“When I came in today and talked to the boys, I do not know what happened to me – I was a little suffocated when I thought about the journey I have been on and ended right back here.”
You did not even have to squint to think this was the old Shaun Johnson; the highlight Shaun Johnson, Shaun Johnson, who was forced to carry the football dreams of not just a suburb – as they do in Sydney – or a city – as they do in Brisbane – but of an entire nation.
The Sydney NRL landscape is a fishing bowl filled with piranhas, but at least there are other fish around. In New Zealand – when it comes to the rugby league – there are only Warriors, and as long as Johnson was their face in both good and bad times, and given these are the Warriors we are talking about, there were plenty of the latter.
To Johnson’s credit, he never let the heavy burden weigh him down; not when he helped drive the club to the grand final in 2011, not when he lost years of his best football to their seemingly endless rebuilds, nor when they let him go away at the end of 2018.
It would be so easy to be bitter about the latter. After many years of fighting, the Warriors had finally returned to the finals and finished in eighth place, but only two points from first.
It was the best team Johnson had ever played on, a team where Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Blake Green and Issac Luke could ease the pressure.
Despite a disappointing loss to Penrith in the first week of the 2018 final, the pieces finally seemed to fit together for Johnson and the Warriors. After several years of rebuilding, they were built.
But these are Warriors, and all too often their biggest opponent shows himself. Johnson was allowed to go (something about money and age, and injuries and the future), and the Warriors went from the edge of something all the way back to the start of something else.
“At the time, I did not think I needed to leave or I had to leave or I wanted to leave, but I have always been one to make the most of every situation you are in or try to find silver lining. , “said Johnson.
“It took a couple of months to realize that I had a lot of growth to do – I had been in the Warriors system since I was a kid. I did not know any other way.”
So Johnson went to Cronulla, reached the final again as the Warriors plunged back into turmoil, and would likely have gone back there twice more if injuries did not end his season early two years in a row.
It was three good campaigns, ceased to be anything more of circumstances that Johnson himself could not control, and that changed him.
He returns to the Warriors another player and another man because he has a greater understanding of himself, on and off the field.
“Mentally, I have grown by leaps and bounds from where I was three years ago,” Johnson said.
“The application I have put into the mental side of the game, who I am as a person, who I am as a player and what my best performance looks like, I have had some clarity about that.
“I’m still learning, it’s not like I’m the finished product – I’ve just seen how people approach performance, and I really believe I have a clearer picture of what it looks like to me personally.
“Physically, I’ve had a few matches at times, but mentally, my application and details and understanding of what winning football looks like is pretty clear.”
Johnson shapes himself as the Warriors’ wise old man
It’s a good thing that Johnson is faster between the ears than he used to be, because he’s right in those fights with his body.
He has only managed more than 20 games in a season once in the last seven years as he battled ankle, hamstring and Achilles tendon injuries. It changed him because it changed what he could.
When it comes to Johnson, it’s easy to keep the running ball early – often and continuously – as the solution to all his problems, but the truth is not so simple, because it never is when you are halfback and in charge of it. much more than yourself.
If all Johnson had to do or could do was run, his career would probably be over. His line breaks and tackle busts have been slowly declining since a serious ankle injury in 2015, but his try assist and line break assist numbers have steadily increased.
The same thing happened to Stacey Jones and Benji Marshall as they got older, and to get over to the second rugby code, it’s the same situation Quade Cooper found himself in when they returned to the Wallabies earlier in the season.
All three of these players grew and changed as their bodies demanded it – as Johnson has done – and then Johnson does not return as the fireball kid yesterday who jumped around and blew through holes that were not even there as if he did not carried New Zealand on his shoulders at all, but like the wise old man.
The Warriors have the pieces of a good backbone: Two excellent strikers in Tohu Harris and Addin Fonua-Blake, and the bones of a decent team and one of Johnson’s great gifts now is the ability to make others around him better.
And of course there’s the dynamic fullback Reece Walsh, in whom there is so much of the old Johnson. And while Johnson may still be the key man among the playmakers, he should not live up to the impossible tasks he was given in his youth.
Instead, his directive from coach Nathan Brown is to show the rest of the spine – like Walsh, the rugged five-eighth Chanel Harris-Tavita and the gifted but erratic Ash Taylor – a thing or two about a thing or two.
“We hope with his experience – especially on the pitch – that he can help us in some of the difficult situations we found ourselves in these years,” Brown said.
“Many times we could not close matches or we found ourselves in situations where we were in good positions, but we failed ourselves.
“With where Shaun is now, he’s not as fast or as flashy as he was when he was younger, but for me he plays with much better control and he sees the game much better now.
“I hope the experience, the game control, can help the team and help our younger players in those key positions.”
They will all be younger than Johnson at Warriors, and they will need his guidance as they try to navigate a third season away from home while the NRL battles the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, it’s still jarring to hear that he’s going to be the oldest statesman on the list next season, even for Johnson himself.
“It’s a really young group of guys here,” Johnson said.
“Everyone is here to help turn the club around, and if I have to be honest, what I’ve seen in the strength and application that the Warriors have shown to keep the game going and in their performance, I think the work is already started and I’m here just to keep it going. “
The Warriors are not after the old Shaun Johnson, which is just as good because that guy no longer exists.
They have old Shaun Johnson, and that’s enough for now.