Not many, if any, players are in a better spot than Shaun Johnson is heading into the 2022 NRL season.
Admittedly a key component of his grand plan hasn’t worked out courtesy of Covid’s influence.
In the first instance, returning to his beloved Vodafone Warriors was all about being home, playing at Mount Smart Stadium in front of the fans and being around family and friends after three years in Sydney.
So much for that. Before he knew it he was heading back to Australia only this time with the wrench of leaving wife Kayla and daughter Millah behind. Separation wasn’t what they’d banked on.
But soon enough the clouds lifted and this week has come the immeasurable bonus of being reunited with his family who shocked him with an unannounced visit ahead of his first appearance for the Vodafone Warriors in 1267 days, or three years five months and 18 days.
“It’s a really good lift for me. I was missing out on moments (with Millah) I know I'll never get back,” he said this week ahead of wearing the #7 jersey in the Vodafone Warriors’ final trial against Gold Coast tomorrow (Saturday) ahead of the season-opener against the Dragons on March 12.
Most of all she hadn't forgotten who I was. Straightaway it was: 'Daddy! Daddy!'Shaun Johnson Vodafone Warrior #168
“Most of all she hadn't forgotten who I was. Straightaway it was: 'Daddy! Daddy!'
“I’m really excited that they get here for this weekend. It's going to be special for my family, the first time running out in the Warriors jersey again. The fact they're going to be in the stands is pretty cool.
“There was no date on when I was going to get to see them again so that was making it harder. I must thank Kayla’s coach Kiri (Wills) at the Stars for allowing her to take off an extra week or two to allow her to come over and see me because as a family we really appreciated it.”
Already buoyed by being back at the club and about to revive his Vodafone Warriors career, the 31-year-old Johnson has been infused with added energy simply by being back on deck doing Dad duties.
“Any parent out there would sympathise with a mum having to raise a daughter doing it on their own. Obviously we've got friends and family back there (in Auckland) but I don't think it's the same as having both parents around,” he said.
“Just seeing how relaxed Kayla is being here and having me as a sounding board and a helping hand makes such a difference.
“She was telling me how good it is seeing Millah and how relaxed and happy she is just having the warmth of her Dad around.
“It's not an ideal situation. I won't sugarcoat it and pretend that it's been ok. It's been really hard.
“But in saying that, to me, it's all going to be worth it. This is the first step in showing people, showing Kayla and my family that it's worth it is this weekend.”
Johnson was more than a little taken aback when his first question at a media session this week was about his wife and daughter arriving unannounced but once over that he kept journalists captivated with an accomplished performance covering a vast range of topics.
The separation anxiety branched off into a wider discussion about the obstacles involved in moving home, which Johnson hadn’t really seen coming.
“It was bad conversation to have when we found out we (the Warriors) were relocating to Redcliffe,” he said.
“Kayla had signed for the Stars to get netball back up. That was the plan to get her back into her career, get us around family and friends and the support network that we hadn't had the last few years living in Sydney.
When you get told you're going to be based in Redcliffe for a year ... it wasn't an easy conversationShaun Johnson Vodafone Warriors halfback
“So when you get told you're going to be based in Redcliffe for a year ... it wasn't an easy conversation.”
The overarching disappointment was, however, quelled once he was in Redcliffe and back in harness as a Vodafone Warrior.
“I don't know if I would have coped anywhere else,” he said. “
“I've really enjoyed my moments here thanks to my teammates, the coaching staff, the club, the whole environment and the culture. The feel, even though we're over here, it does feel right, that I am home.
“The players have been so supportive. Obviously they've been through a whole heap themselves over the last few years. What they've seen me going through is what they've been through so they're understanding.
“Just by chance I live in the same building as Bayley Sironen and he has helped me settle in. People like that doing little things to help their teammates and then become my family while I'm here has been pretty special.”
The time away from his family also brought to a head feelings Johnson had about New Zealand’s MIQ policy. He decided to speak out about.
“I was speaking from my own experience as a Dad having sat through four quarantines myself,” he said.
“I just didn't believe that was the right course of action at this point. I did think it was right at one time but I think we're past that now.
“I got blowback, I got support but it was nothing I couldn't handle. I put myself out there knowing that but ultimately it was more about showing support for families that were going through a similar situation.”
While Johnson indulged in the question line about his family’s visit, separation and matters related to MIQ there was some respite when football was mentioned. More specifically his recovery from the hamstring injury that abruptly ended his stint with Cronulla Sutherland and what he found in place at his old club.
“It's been a really good preseason,” he said.
“I pinged my hammy last year, a pretty bad one, but way the club managed me and got me back into the swing of things was pretty impressive.
“Obviously at my age I can't do some of things the 20-year-olds are doing, the sheer volume they're doing, so (the staff) have looked after me but I definitely feel like I've got enough work under my belt to, one, go into this weekend and, two, go into the season feeling pretty confident with my body.”
What Johnson doesn't buy is the notion – and it was offered up again this week – that the challenges the Vodafone Warriors have faced heading into a third season away from home will somehow be a silver bullet, helping to magically fortify them and give them sort of an edge.
“It's important that we don't dive too deep into making it about what we've been through because everyone around the way, whatever job you're in, whatever your family situation, we've all had to deal with some adversity because of this,” he said.
I don't believe we can do something special coming off the back of that; I believe we can do something special because of the hard work we've been putting inShaun Johnson Vodafone Warrior #168
“The club's been through a fair bit, the families have been through a fair bit but I know there are boys at the Sharks who have been through a fair bit, too. I don't believe we can do something special coming off the back of that; I believe we can do something special because of the hard work we've been putting in.
Everyone's had a good stint under Brownie now so they know what the expectations are of this club and they've been able to build a culture that resembles that. Covid and resilience ties into that but I don't think we can play that card and expect that will give us an edge over other teams because I know other teams have had to deal with stuff, too, and other families have as well.”
What he does believe is that being based at Redcliffe has been beneficial and is hoping fans from the region make the Vodafone Warriors their team.
“I hope the people here get behind us,” he said.
“I'm not too sure the community is really aware we're here just yet. I think they're still warming to us and I think it's awesome that Redcliffe has an NRL club coming to town (next year).
“I do hope they can get behind us this season because to us we're representing this region although we're also representing New Zealand. They're housing us. We want to do our families and friends proud but we also want to do Redcliffe proud. They've been terrific since we've been here. Let's hope we can start this weekend with a good hit out and it can give Redcliffe something to be excited about and come out and watch a team that's going to give them a bit of entertainment.”
If that piece of the puzzle – the level of local support – is yet to be solved so too is the poser of who will play in the halves in the first-round encounter with the Dragons.
“That's not for me to answer,” said Johnson.
“What has been cool is that there has been four or five of us who have been flowing in and out (of the halves at training) and we all feel comfortable that we can fill a role.
“With the way this year is going I think you're going to see a ridiculous number of players being used and players getting an opportunity and I think you'll see #7 and #6 changing all the time. We'll all be ready and we'll all be pretty confident we can fill that job.”
One of those potential partners is new signing Ash Taylor.
“I've played against Ash for a few years now and I've always known what he could do as a footy player,” said Johnson.
“I've just been impressed with him as a fella. He's so funny and so good for the boys. He knows what it looks like to be a good, consistent player. I'm really excited that he's here after a tough couple of years and revitalised, just wanting to play footy again. It's been pretty cool for the group to see and he's been rewarded with a fulltime contract.”
For now, though – and starting with tomorrow’s trial against the Titans – so much focus will be on Johnson and what the fan favourite can bring back to the club he’s never stopped loving. And he'll have his family right there watching him step out again in Vodafone Warriors colours.