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Johnson 2.0: Older, wiser and even more valuable to Warriors

Shaun Johnson's highlight reel from his first stint as a Warrior was brimming with flashy footwork, dazzling dummies and match-winning moments.

From his debut season as a 20-year in 2011 when the Warriors made it all the way to the grand final to his leading role in the club's last trip to the finals in 2018, Johnson's brilliance ensured he'd always hold a special place in the hearts of the Mt Smart faithful.

As the gifted playmaker prepares to pull the Warriors jersey on again this Saturday, many fans will be hoping the prodigal son can weave some magic and put them back on the map after three lean seasons.

Johnson's every move will be scrutinised and his partnership with Kodi Nikorima put under the microscope, but coach Nathan Brown believes the 31-year-old is better equipped than ever before to cope with the expectations.

"With the experience Shaun has gained, not only through his playing over the years but also leaving New Zealand, getting married, having a child, all these things in life and playing for a different footy club, all these experiences help mould you," Brown said.

Warriors v Dragons

"We all change with experience, we all have faults, we all have strengths and weaknesses ... learning the art of controlling the speed of the game and kicking the ball and helping your teammates look good, that just comes with time for a lot of halves.

"I think Shaun will be a far more valuable player now for the Warriors because of the things he can do for the people around him and what he can do for the team."

Given that Johnson scored 63 tries and kicked 326 goals across 162 games the first time around, and was playing Test football by the age of 21, the thought of him being even more influential should be enough to have rival coaches sweating.

The youthful exuberance and flashy plays that Johnson brought to the table in are now being provided by Reece Walsh, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Viliami Vailea, and Brown can't wait to see his young guns interactiing with the wily No.7.

"A lot of our younger players are physically in better shape than they were last year," Brown said.

"Our players have made some big sacrifices, there's blokes whose diets have changed a lot so we feel like the work has been done and the growth of the young guys is exciting.

"Young Vili has been growing in training and he is far more advanced now and ready to play more games. 

"Chanel is extremely fit, he has good skills and he’s tough so he ticks some boxes to play fullback at the elite level.

"It's such a demanding position and it can be a lonely spot but Chanel has the natural skills and the courage needed to bring the ball back on kick returns."

Johnson: The first time running back out in a Warriors jersey

So while Harris-Tavita and his two wingers Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Marcelo Montoya take care of the kicks at one end, Johnson will look to make life hell for the Dragons' back three and pin them in the corners.

Still blessed with the ability to be a game breaker if given room to move, it's the role of game manager Brown expects Johnson to make his own in his second coming as a Warrior. 

"When Shaun was a younger kid he had to rely on brilliance and it’s hard to be brilliant all the time, but to play with control and kick well and help your teammates look good, that’s a part of his game that’s very moulded in him and consistent now," Brown said.

"So it doesn’t really matter what people expect or say about him we can be pretty confident that most weeks he’ll get that right because that’s what he bases his game on now.

"If you base your game on brilliance it’s very hard to be brilliant every week when you’re playing very good teams and very good coaches, and when you’re not brilliant people are quick to let you know you’re not.

"Shaun's skill set is so different to what it used to be and those things hold up in big games when we need him most, helping his team-mates look better and controlling the pace of the game."

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The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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