The 2013 NRL season is about to kick off. Logan Carr catches up with Warriors star Shaun Johnson to talk about his career so far -Warriors fans, and the 2013 season.
Shaun Johnson, the New Zealand Warriors’ halfback and one of the rising young stars of the NRL, is quickly establishing himself as one of the best playmakers in the game. In 2011, he burst on to the scene with a standout rookie NRL season in which he helped guide the Warriors to the Grand Final and was named the Warriors’ Young NRL Player of the Year. He followed that up with a solid campaign in 2012 that saw him make his international debut for the Kiwis in the Anzac test.
Weight: 92 kg
Height: 179 cm (5 ft 10 in)
Date of Birth: 09/09/1990 (22 years old)
Place of Birth: Auckland, New Zealand
You’ve already accomplished a lot in a still young career. How does it feel to be having so much success at only 22?
It’s all pretty amazing. Growing up as a kid, it was always a dream of mine to play in the NRL, and the fact that it all happened so fast still feels surreal. When I initially came into first grade, I couldn’t really believe it was happening. It was a very cool experience to go through.
In your Kiwi debut you scored an 80-metre intercept try. Describe that feeling of putting on a black jersey for the first time and scoring in your first test.
That was a special moment for me. What made it even more special was that it was in Auckland, at Eden Park. I was raised in Auckland so all my family and friends were able to come out and watch. To me, representing your country is the pinnacle of rugby league, and while we didn’t get the win, I got through the whole match and that was an unforgettable moment for me.
You’re quickly becoming one of the best young players in the NRL, but growing up, league wasn’t your only love. You also played touch rugby and Aussie rules (representing New Zealand in both), and played rugby union in your high school’s First XV. When did your affection shift predominantly to league and you realized “this is what I want to do”?
I think my love for league was always there. Growing up, I never wanted to play for the All Blacks, but I always wanted to play for the Warriors and the Kiwis. Right throughout my childhood years it was always rugby league. The only reason I went to rugby union was because all my mates played it, and where I’m from league wasn’t a huge thing. As for Aussie rules, that was just a hobby, a new and different challenge for me and it really helped my kicking game in league. But the two sports I always loved were touch and league.
Few players have had to deal with as much expectation as you. Several years ago, Andrew Johns – one of the legends of rugby league – said “I haven’t been this excited about a player in a long time”. Former NRL commentator Phil Gould described you as the “New Benji Marshall”. Those are some big accolades. How have you handled the pressure of living up to them?
The pressure has been tough to deal with at times. I’m lucky because I’ve got the right people around me – that makes it easier. My family is always there for me and I’ve got good friends who don’t let me get carried away with it all. I think last year, more so than the first year, I really felt the pressure of backing up that first season I had in 2011. Going into 2012, a lot of people talked about second-season syndrome and hitting the wall. It didn’t affect me to be honest and I think I dealt with it well, especially earlier in the year, but with the way our season went, people started to use that as an excuse for the way my performances were going. You just have to deal with it, though – you can get brought down to earth very fast in the NRL, so you’ve got to push it to the side and get on with it.
The Warriors have some of the most devout fans in league (and in all of sports) – what’s been the coolest or weirdest fan experience you’ve had?
I haven’t had too many weird or crazy ones (laughs).
So no marriage proposals? Or anything along those lines?
No, nothing like that. I don’t think young girls like me (laughs). Even now I find it unreal that I get recognised in the streets or when I go out at night. A lot of people ask for a photo and that sort of thing. That’s enough for me; I don’t need anything weird or crazy – especially since I consider myself a normal 22-year-old. I’m still getting used to it all.
The Warriors were criticised last year for perhaps not being fit and mentally tough enough during the back end of the season, and the team’s second-half collapse led to the firing of Brian “Bluey” McLennan. Now with a new coach – Matthew Elliott – in place, how are things changing? Has there been a renewed focus on fitness and the mental side of the game during pre-season training?
There have been a lot of changes. Not only on the football field, but also with what’s happening within the club. The club’s gone through a big overhaul after the obvious disappointment of last year. They’ve put all the right things in place for us to have a successful season. Pre-season’s been tough but, talking about that mental strength, we’ve really been tested this pre-season and it can only benefit us down the road. I can honestly say that we’ve been pushed to the limits and had to be pushed through them at times. Every pre-season you’ve got to look at things to improve on and the areas we struggled in last year are getting looked at, but so are a lot of other things.
Describe a typical pre-season fitness session.
At this stage there’s a lot of ground-base fitness. In the pre-season you do a lot of running to get a lot of time on your legs. Our typical fitness session at the moment would be focused on legs. A lot of “down, up” stuff. We’ve got Ruben Wiki with us now, and he’s making us do a lot of burpees and leg crawls. That’s mixed in with all your skills sessions that you do while you’re at the stadium.
James Maloney – your halves partner last year – will be suiting up for the Sydney Roosters this season. Thomas Leuluai is expected to fill his boots. How are you dealing with the change and the added responsibility?
It’s going good at the moment. To grow as a player you’ve got to keep moving forward and accepting new challenges, so I’m embracing it. I’m quite lucky as well because I’ve got Thomas stepping in next to me, and he’s an experienced player. He’s won a World Cup, and won several competitions over in the Super League and we get along well.
Which team in the NRL do you find the toughest to go up against?
They’re all pretty tough, mate (laughs). The thing I’ll say about the NRL is that there are literally no easy games. You can’t look at the schedule and point at one game that you’d class as an easy game. All the teams are tough to play.
Who do you regard as the best player in the competition?
It’s hard to single one out because there are so many good players, but if I had to go for one, I’d probably say Cooper Cronk – for the pure fact that he’s so drilled and accurate in everything he does, and he’s a great halfback.
Which players’ games – past or present – do you try to study and emulate?
I don’t study anyone’s game in particular. There are players’ games you can take bits and pieces out of, but the game is always changing so it’s hard to go back and watch a game from, say, Andrew Johns in the late ‘90s and try and compare it to what we do now because the game’s so different. I do sometimes look at other players, like Cooper Cronk and [Jonathan] Thurston, but for the most part I try to create my own sort of style.
You’re currently under contract with the Warriors until the end of the 2014 season. Do you think about joining other teams?
No. I’m really focused with what’s happening at the Warriors, and I’m really happy at the moment so I’ve got no reason to leave.
League great Darren Lockyer has previously opened up in interviews and admitted he partied too much as fame went to his head. How do you stay grounded with your early success?
I’ve got good people around me, and I don’t take anything for granted. I realise how lucky I am to play rugby league as a job. I’d be playing the sport regardless if I got paid or not.
The Rugby League World Cup is on later this year, and while the Kangaroos have bested the Kiwis the last few years (with the notable exception being the 2010 Four Nations Final), New Zealand are the current holders of the Cup. How much do you think the New Zealand team has closed the gap with the Aussies?
Massively. We seem to peak in the big tournaments, like the Four Nations and obviously the World Cup, but in the one off tests and end-of-year tours we used to fall flat. Now, over the last couple years, we’ve really closed the gap. The game I played in was pretty tight the entire time, and we genuinely thought we were in with a chance to win. Then again late last year, we were up in Townsville and it was a close game again. We were right there, and we’re heading in the right direction.
What’s your advice to any aspiring NRL players out there?
Just keep believing. Playing in the NRL was always a dream of mine and I never really thought it would happen. You always think it only happens to special players who are born with “it” but the truth is it can happen to anyone who is willing to work hard enough and believe they can make it.
What are your goals for the 2013 season and beyond?
Firstly, play good, consistent footy for the Warriors. I want to bounce back after the disappointment of last season. Secondly, be part of the World Cup squad that goes to England at the end of the year. Those are my two main focuses.