They don’t call him Magic for nothing. In a game in which meteoric rises seem more and more the norm, Shaun Johnson still stands out for how quickly he’s entered the Rugby League stratosphere. Slated as the halfback New Zealand had been looking for since Stacey Jones left for the Catalans Dragons in 2005, Johnson burst on the scene in 2011 to embody the beginning of a new Golden Age for the Warriors, ushering them into their first Grand Final in over a decade and putting in a killer performance that might have won them the game had Jamie Lyon’s late try not tipped things in Manly’s favour. Sometimes a single move can prophecy a player’s future, and Johnson’s incredible pass to Manu Vatuvei put any doubts to rest about the magnitude of this new talent. If there was ever a player who felt destined to restore New Zealand’s ailing Rugby League reputation – at least in the NRL – it was Johnson. It didn’t hurt, either, that New Zealand was represented at every grade of this Grand Final, with the Vulcans losing the NSW Cup to Canterbury-Bankstown, and the Under-20s Warriors winning the Toyota Cup over North Queensland. In his many warm tributes to his home side, Johnson has made frequent reference to the synergy between the Telstra and Toyota Warriors, and it felt like there was something of his can-do spirit in the win over the Cowboys that night as well.
So has Johnson lived up to that initial promise? The answer has to be yes, although in a more eccentric and elliptical way than anyone might have imagined. Watching him take on Manly that night was enough to recognise his genius, but perhaps not enough to recognise how peculiar his genius would turn out to be. In some ways, it felt right that 2011 was also Daly Cherry-Evans’ first year with the Sea Eagles, since DCE and Johnson have developed into the two basic versions of what a genius halfback can be. Where DCE is consistent, methodical and super organised, Johnson’s game is often a kind of madness whose method you only glean minutes, hours and sometimes even days after the fact. On the one hand, that makes him one of the most inconsistent halfbacks in the game. On the other hand, it means that he’s almost unbeatable at his best. Where DCE was born and bred in Rugby League, Johnson could equally have pursued representative careers in Rugby, AFL and – if reports are anything to go by – basketball, which gives him a different skill set and a more idiosyncratic approach to his game. Like Will Chambers, Johnson plays Rugby League with an eye to every other sport in his stable, and that tends to make him a bit different from the big-name players who’ve honed and refined their skill through League alone.
For that reason, Johnson hasn’t quite restored the Warriors to their former glory under Stacey Jones. In fact, Auckland have barely glimpsed a Grand Final since 2011. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Johnson hasn’t been a dynamite player for New Zealand – if anything, the problem is that the Warriors haven’t always managed to accommodate themselves to his talent, something I’ll discuss in a moment. At the same time, Johnson has arguably shone more than any other player in his off-season career, captaining the Warriors for the inaugural Auckland Nines in 2014 and carrying the Kiwis through an astonishing no-loss Four Nations tournament, culminating with a victory over the Kangaroos that saw him named Man of the Match. To top it all off, Johnson was awarded the Golden Boot in 2014 in only his fourth year of rep footy, the first New Zealander to win the Boot in over a decade – the first since Stacey Jones – as well as only the fourth New Zealander, and the second Warrior to take home the coveted Rugby League prize since its inception in the 1980s.
That said, the Golden Boot award was not without its controversies. Some pundits were quick to point out that the Kiwis’ victory over the Roos in that final Four Nations match was enabled by a severely depleted Australian side, not unlike the Blues victory over the Maroons the same year. At the same time, you’d have to concede that both Thurston and Inglis were probably, game-for-game, more consistent than Johnson over the 2014 season, while you’d be hard pressed to find a better single footy performance in 2014 than Sam Burgess’ push for the Grand Final, where he was awarded Man of the Match. If you were ever in search of a player who epitomised the clenched-jaw spirit of League, it’d be Burgess that night, bringing the Bunnies home while battling a fractured cheekbone that made it feel as if he was tackling every renegade Dogs line with his face. And yet Burgess only got half the votes of Johnson, while Thurston got even less. Sure, Thurston had already won twice in the last three years, but if there was ever a player who was going to win the Boot three years in a row it was JT, by all accounts the best player in the game at the moment.
You can see, then, why the Boot caused a bit of controversy, if not outrage. Still, I thought Johnson was a fair pick. If anything, his win showed us that the criteria are changing a bit. Where the prize was once about the best player in the world, now it seems to be more about the best up-and-coming player in the world. Instead of asking older players to rest on their laurels, it’s now about encouraging younger players to grow into the worldwide reputations that they’re on the verge of gaining. At the same time, there’s probably something of the Academy Awards in there too, where judges will sometimes give the prize to an unexpected contestant just to keep things fresh. At the very least, there was a clear divide between pros and young guns, with Inglis, Burgess, Thurston and Graham on one side and Johnson and Jesse Bromwich on the other. While there can be no doubt that Bromwich has done wonders for the Storm, there are dozens of other players – some also from the Storm, like Will Chambers – who you’d think would have made it to the final shortlist ahead of him. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Bromwich polled 2 votes compared to Johnson’s 44 – he was always an outlier, there to add an exotic touch.
While the Golden Boot may have evolved a bit, though, it’s important to remember that it’s about Rugby League on the international stage specifically. While Graham, Inglis, Thurston and – above all – Burgess may have had better rep footy seasons in 2014 than Johnson, there can be no doubt that Johnson was the international presence of the year thanks to his domineering Four Nations and Nines appearances. Not only was Thurston left out of the Four Nations due to injury – arguably the key reason why the Roos were so depleted – but even Inglis was a bit diminished, with Johnson storming past him in the second half to deliver one of the key turning-points in the game. If the Four Nations and Nines proved anything, it’s that Johnson is the kind of impulsive, improvisational, risk-taking player who works well in small-scale tournaments where every second is at stake. It’s no coincidence that he put up his hand to play in the Rugby Sevens that are set to debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, nor that he put his hand up for them as early as 2013, since it’s exactly this kind of real-time, tight-pressure situation that Johnson has learned to make his own, even if he hasn’t quite matured into the season-reaching sweep of a DCE.
At the same time, it may be that the Warriors haven’t fully given Johnson that opportunity either. Despite hailing from the greatest country in the world for both international Rugby League and Union, the Warriors have struggled a bit with their identity over the last couple of years, employing an unusual and sometimes bewildering array of formations that don’t always play to the strengths of individual talents, even if they do create chinks in the armor where a playmaker like Johnson can improvise and improve his art from week to week, giving him quite a bit of room to manoeuvre around the back of the pack in particular. As so many commentators have noted, the return of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke to Auckland next year may turn that around – some have even speculated that with Johnson they may form the greatest Rugby League trio since Smith, Slater and Cronk – but you have to wonder whether the Warriors will give these giants the room they need to really settle into their game. In particular, the Roosters have provided RTS with a unique opportunity to work on his running game, to the point where he’s set to rack up a staggering 6000 metres this season – the most of any NRL player in history – thanks to Trent Robinson’s dependence on a particularly mobile back three. From all accounts, that option won’t be available in the same way at Auckland.
So maybe Johnson will stabilise into the reliability and consistency of a DCE once Luke and Tuivasa-Sheck get on board. Or maybe not. Maybe his brand of outlier genius just doesn’t lend itself to being too dependent on other players, even other halves. In that sense, Johnson may be the only halfback in the game who’s a solo artist, which is not to see that he’s not an amazing team sport, but that he’s blessed with an originality and audacity that tends to whittle him away from the corresponding five-eighth and makes it feel as if the competition will take years to simply catch up with his moves. In a recent article, Paul Kent made the point that Johnson is unlikely to change the game simply because he’s too original – and it does often feel as if he’s yet to find the halves partner that can match his verve. Admittedly, Jimmy Maloney looked as if he was coming close in his early days with the Warriors, but since his move to the Roosters nobody would dispute that Johnson is now the more innovative player, even if his star hasn’t shone quite as bright as Maloney’s at the rep level.
What is clear is that Johnson’s Golden Boot was a massive win for New Zealand Rugby League as a whole, restoring the connection between the Kiwis’ local and international reputation and turning Johnson himself into something of an ambassador for NZRL as a whole, not a bad fit for one of the most articulate, eloquent and downright gracious players in the game today. You only have to take a look at his Twitter account or his acceptance speeches to realise that this guy brings as much to his etiquette off the field as to his grinding efforts on it. Unlike most players, he doesn’t seem to require media management or even a “media profile,” just because he’s naturally polite, dedicated and grateful, always thanking his team mates, fans and support structure whenever he appears in interviews, on talk shows, or after matches – the perfect mascot for a country where both League and Union are part of the same grassroots , a community that’s been a bit more segregated and subdivided back in Australia.
More than even Sonny Bill Williams, then, Johnson feels like the face of New Zealand Rugby full stop – he’s the kind of player who seems to leave the differences between League and Union in his wake, and not only because he’s likely to represent New Zealand Rugby at the 2016 Olympic Sevens, in a kind of sequel to his barnstorming performance at the 2014 Nines. Combined with the extent to which AFL has contributed to his kicking game – it’s no secret that Johnson was actually scouted by the Swans in the mid-00s, and named New Zealand’s best up-and-coming AFL star in 2006 – and he’s even more than an ambassador for Rugby: he’s an ambassador for football in all its codes across the international arena. Sure, he can’t quite drive a game with his kick or always pinpoint exactly where his kick is going to land, but you have to wonder whether continued AFL training might do as much for that as NRL training, with Will Chambers’ sojourn with the Saints coming to mind. Not only does that diverse international football experience makes Johnson’s Golden Boot totally deserved, but it perhaps also explains the restless inconsistency to his play, since, like Chambers, he’s a footy genius who has yet to find a way to harness his diverse talents into a single season-length vision.
At the same time, a player like Johnson also reminds us that the distinctions between the national and international stage are increasingly arbitrary anyway. As a New Zealand player representing Auckland in an Australian Rugby League competition, how is Johnson not competing on the international stage when he rocks up for Warriors games? Similarly, as Englishmen playing for Australian teams in a Grand Final with a global reach, how were James Graham and Sam Burgess not playing on the international stage when they met at ANZ at the end of 2014? You could probably argue that any single match in the Four Nations actually has less racial diversity than your typical NRL match, begging the question of how “national” the NRL really is anymore, and why we still insist on this distinction between national and international representation. Revising it would allow us to open up Origin to a true cross-section of the game, as well as assuring that players like Burgess and Graham got at least a bit more of a look-in when it comes to awards panels like the Golden Boot. It would also help restore that connection between national and international achievement that seems to plague NZRL at the moment, even if Johnson’s meteoric rise to fame has provided a temporary reconciliation between the Warriors and the Kiwis.
Still, that’s material for another post. For here it’s enough to say that Johnson’s power lies in the way he manages to confound both football codes and national affiliations in ways that make him feel like the ambassador for football in New Zealand, Australia and abroad. For perhaps that reason, he always feels like the most joyous player on the field – there are few players who seem to smile so much, or to give so much energy back to the crowd without getting aggro in the process. That good humour is all the more endearing in that he’s had his fair share of injuries as well – almost as many as James Tedesco – most recently a particularly intense bout of ankle surgery that he’s shared in a pretty entertaining way on his Twitter account. Still, that hasn’t prevented him getting back onto the field – if anything, it just makes him seem more relatable and resilient once he’s out there. In the whole of Rugby League, there are few better spectacles than seeing Johnson flip the ball onto the ground with his trademark smile at the fans, and as he passes his 100th game for the Warriors it’s clear that the sky’s the limit for this young gun. If he’s achieved this much at 25, who’s to say what more he can achieve over the next decade?