WARRIOR-ROO BLOG NO.14: SJ – THE DIVISIVE ENIGMA

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Robert Anderson is a Brisbane-based Warriors fan and long-time member of the club. Throughout 2020, he will share his memories and thoughts on his beloved team for This Warriors Life. Here’s the 14th edition of Robert’s ‘Warrior-Roo’ blog (find previous entries HERE):

Shaun Johnson creates headlines, regardless of the way he’s playing. He’s soared the dizzying highs and wallowed in the miserable lows during his 10-season career in first grade. During his time on the field for the Warriors he was a polarising figure, and equally his departure from the club at the end of 2018 divided opinions.

I’m going start out by saying that SJ was my favorite player during his time at the Warriors. I say “was”, because I don’t really follow players after they leave the club. Also, as I’m Australian I don’t really have a vested interested in ex-players performing well for the Kiwis. Sure he had – and still does – have his shortcomings, but he oozed X-factor, and more importantly potential.

He entered the NRL in a blaze of glory in 2011 and was brilliant throughout his debut season. I was there at Suncorp Stadium to witness one of the greatest solo tries in NRL history. And who could forget his match-winning play in the preliminary final? The future was looking so bright for SJ and the Warriors – the potential was unlimited. But there’s that word again…potential.

The 2012 follow-up came and to be honest was best forgotten, as were for the most part all seasons up until 2018. It must be mentioned that. personally for SJ, 2014 was a great season with the Warriors missing the finals by a whisker and Johnson winning the Golden Boot award after guiding the Kiwis to Four Nations glory.

It looked like he’d finally arrived in 2015 after a series of memorable plays that only SJ could produce. He looked like a man in career-best form and helped the team into the top four coming out of the State of Origin period. Unfortunately, that all came to an end against Manly after his ankle felt the full weight of Tom Symonds’ torso while scoring a classic SJ solo try. As he hobbled off the field so did our hopes and gave us fans six weeks of pure misery to end the season.

SHAUN JOHNSON’S TOP 100 MAGIC WARRIORS MOMENTS

He was never the same player after that. The explosive pace and footwork started to deteriorate and it seemed like he was playing injured through 2016-2017. Blake Green’s arrival ahead of the 2018 season as the much-publicised foil to take the playmaking pressure off SJ produced instant results with the club’s first finals appearance in seven years. Against Penrith in week one he helped us to an early 12-2 lead, but after an injury to our inspirational skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck the team seemed to collectively drop their heads and SJ went into his shell.

That was his last appearance in a Warriors jersey and left a bitter taste in many fans’ mouths, including myself. With RTS off the field that was his time; we had waited seven years for another crack at the finals, and it was over in a flash.

It would seem that the powers that be at the club weren’t big fans of his disappearing act, and before we knew it, he was released from his contract and on his way to Cronulla. The events that immediately led up to his release have been debated by all and sundry; everyone has their own version of what happened to suit their narrative, whether it be Team Warriors or Team SJ. Outside of those in the room that fateful morning, nobody really knows what was said, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between the club ruthlessly giving him his marching orders and SJ throwing his toys out of the cot.

JOHNSON AND WARRIORS AT ODDS OVER CONTRACT SITUATION

So, I go back to the word ‘potential’. The sky was (and still is) the limit for SJ, but for whatever reason he’s struggled with consistency. The most common arguments are the lack of size and momentum in the Warriors pack, and the lack of a steady playmaker by his side. It’s certainly true that the Warriors pack was regularly dominated and has lacked a real enforcer for many years. Players like Maloney, Leuluai, Townsend, Robson, Foran and finally Green were all tried in the steady hand role alongside him, with varying degrees of success.

With Green as his partner in crime it looked as though he was finally starting to unlock that potential. Again, like 2011 things were looking bright for SJ and the club.

It’s now confession time. When the whole departure went down, I sided with the club and backed the call to cut him loose. I had convinced myself he’d had his time to prove himself but hadn’t delivered on his potential and he wasn’t the guy to lead us to our maiden premiership. After all, one finals appearance in seven years was just not good enough. Unfortunately, it turned into bitterness towards my former favourite player and as bad as this is to admit I revelled in the criticism that he received in his first season at Cronulla. To be perfectly honest deep down I knew what he was and is capable of and I wouldn’t be able to bear seeing him finally unlock his potential at Cronulla of all teams.

A few weeks ago Cooper Cronk gave SJ a massive public spray and claimed that he has “fired blanks” since arriving at Cronulla on big money. As I silently chuckled to myself, I had that moment of clarity – the ugly jealous feelings that had manifested themselves within me towards him really showed how much I did, and still do, really like the guy. And to his credit, since the Cronk criticism SJ has been setting up tries left, right, and centre, leading the NRL in try assists and surging to second in the Dally M standings. We line up against him again this weekend and you can’t help but feel that we’re the kind of team he was born to play against.

We’ve seen Benji Marshall make a fairytale return to West Tigers and I can’t help but feel that there’s another twist in the tale for SJ and the Warriors. I’m a huge Miami Heat fan and went through the same thing with Dwyane Wade leaving the franchise in 2016 after 13 seasons. Eighteen months later the stars aligned and Wade was traded back to Miami much to the delight of the Heat faithful. Hearing the announcer once again call out Wade’s name throughout the arena was a tearjerking, hairs-raised-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment.

Shaun, there’s still a lot of love for you at the club, and if you were to ever return home this Warriors fan would welcome you with open arms. Please just go easy on your old mates this Sunday!

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