Such is life when you're from Aotearoa, let alone coming from Aotearoa Warriors, that everyone and anyone assumes that you will be more successful at an Australian NRL club. Shaun Johnson has not only left the Warriors to join an Cronulla Sharks - an Australian NRL club - he's joining a team that appears perfectly suited to his style and most importantly, Johnson's getting the big ol' lump of cash that he wants.
I'm excited to see Johnson in action for another club. That mainly centres around me wanting to see as many #KiwiNRL players over in Aussie as possible, thus pushing the #KiwiNRL takeover along. Johnson's different though, he's a regular Kiwis half and any time a play of that calibre is at an Australian club, celebrations should be offered; the #KiwiNRL takeover is quality and quantity.
Having spent time letting this SJ7 stuff simmer in my loins, I can't shake the gut-feeling though that this may not work out quite as Johnson hopes, or as many are assuming. Of course, we need to consider the best-case scenario of Johnson loving life in the Shire; rolling out a delightful combo with Chad Townsend that resembles the balance offered by Johnson and Blake Green; getting the spoils of all the Shark offloads after they nudged the Warriors out of the top offloading spot; Johnson slotting right into the tough, rugged style of the Sharks and playing his role in a fairly electric play-making unit.
Just because the vibes in my gut aren't quite as optimistic, doesn't mean I can't see this working out wonderfully well for Johnson and the Sharks. It's a very realistic possibility and that in itself is super intriguing as this will offer us, as kiwis and Warriors folk, insight and clarity as to Johnson's true value.
It's been funny over the past week to see fans and media try to lay out Johnson's true value. Winning percentages are countered with 'Johnson goes missing' yarns and everyone's got their way of reinforcing their opinion on Johnson's value. Johnson is unique though, because the toxic nature of viewing Johnson exists in extremes; Johnson's the reason the Warriors won, or he's the reason he lost.
Not many players in the NRL are that polarizing, let alone that polarizing without concrete evidence. The truth is, no one knows if Johnson is worth the cash and no one knows how Johnson's legacy sits now, nor how it will look moving forward. There are plenty of reasons for this, mainly the irrational nature in which people immediately hit extremes in evaluating Johnson and I'm just excited to see the real Johnson.
Team Johnson believes that the Sharks are the best team to showcase his true value, scorned by a dose of reality from the Warriors. This is Johnson's chance to prove himself and other than the Sharks being one of few NRL teams who could immediately offer Johnson what he wants, it feels like a strange fit. 'Strange' is the key word here as I roll through my Sharks vibes, because it feels strange now and how Johnson deals with this will be super interesting as he's the big money man at Cronulla, same as the Warriors; we've seen that Johnson can be a wee bit sensitive to expectations around being a marquee type of guy.
In the space of a week, along with signing Johnson, news came out about the Sharks losing sponsors, losing $3 million in 2018 and giving 10 staff members the flick. The most recent drama out of Cronulla is a salary cap investigation and despite Shane Flanagan doing a nek level job as coach, he's apparently struggling to get a new contract because of a lack of dosh at the Sharks.
Johnson walks into an environment that is already prickly. The Sharks get a fair amount of media attention in the Sydney rugby league media orgy, more often than not it's of the negative variety. Again, I'm intrigued as to how Johnson deals with this strange situation, which only gets funkier.
The Sharks can afford to splash cash on Johnson, because one of their favourite sons Valentine Holmes is off to chase an NFL dream. Sharks fans may feel some type of way about that and as it's Johnson who replaces Holmes, on big money, there will be an expectation that Johnson delivers the level of performance that Holmes did.
It's a stretch to suggest that Holmes wanted out of Cronulla, although he was being chased to return to North Queensland and many believe that if he is to return to the NRL after 2019, the Cowboys are the best suitor. Holmes' departure comes with the retirement of Luke Lewis and strike centre Jesse Ramien who left to Newcastle Knights, consistent starting centre Ricky Leutele (Toronto Wolfpack) and job-doing forward Joseph Paulo (St Helens).
Lewis was still a stand-out player in his final season, while Ramien and Leutele offered a strong centre duo and Paulo filled a niche in the forward pack. This is merely to suggest that taking the same energy from 2018 into 2019 with regards to the Sharks, isn't automatic as this is a club transitioning between eras.
Paul Gallen is set to retire after next season and I'm cautious about this idea of Johnson playing behind a forward pack that's always dominating their opposition. Lewis played a role in that (Lewis was exceptional last season) and it doesn't feel like there is room for improvement in Gallen, or Andrew Fifita. Aaron Woods can build on a weird 2018 for him, otherwise I don't know if we are going to see a better Sharks forward pack in 2019 than we did this year.
Then we recently had the Sharks re-signing Kyle Flanagan, son of coach Shane for three years up to 2021. Flanagan is one of the hottest young halves prospects in the NRL and will be sniffing around looking for NRL minutes. With Johnson and Chad Townsend as well, there's a three into two situation, with Matt Moylan then the likeliest candidate for fullback.
This could add pressure on to Johnson as he'll need to deliver, or face the prospect of similar negativity around his place at the club given his price-tag. Most interestingly for me though, the Sharks struggled to find specific roles for various players this year as they had lacked specialists who demanded selection; even Holmes was shifted around between fullback and wing, moving forward there's Moylan, Johnson, Townsend, Flanagan and Josh Dugan.
I'm not highlighting this to suggest that the Sharks will suck in 2019, nah. This yarn is about Johnson and it again comes back around to how Johnson deals with niggly situations, plural. Many are making the assumption that Johnson's going to a better club, with better players, moving in a better direction and when you dig into where the Sharks sit, I'm very cautious about entertaining those ideas.
Johnson is moving to a club that is in transition in terms of their playing roster. A club that is a magnet for drama and negativity in the Sydney fish-bowl and a club with a fanbase who will have high expectations for their million-dollar man. My experience of Johnson as a Warrior is that Johnson wasn't overly self aware, which relates to how he dealt with criticism and expectations. How this translates to a situation that feels more niggly and prickly is going to be a big test for the maturity of Johnson. This may be a great moment for the lad as he has a chance to step outside his comfort zone and outside your comfort zone is where growth happens.
Your value as an athlete is whatever a team/club wants to pay you, yet this situation's slightly different as Johnson clearly believes his value is $1mil/season. The Sharks believe in that value, yet Johnson walked away from a club, a year early, because that club suggested he wasn't worth that value. Johnson arrives at the Sharks, having clearly laid out his perspective of his value and thus, Johnson has created his own expectations.
Carrying those expectations to a club that feels like a weird fit for a guy like Johnson, doesn't appear ideal. This move is money-centric, based on how much Johnson thinks he's worth and not so much about the best fit for Johnson's career. We've seen how Johnson dealt with the pressure at the Warriors, now we get to see how Johnson deals with not more, but a different type of pressure at the Sharks.
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Peace and love 27.