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Johnson v Townsend: From friends to foes for a night

For five of the last eight seasons, Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend were on the same wavelength as halves who made a whole for two different clubs.

Until now they have lined up as opponents on just two occasions after Townsend left the Vodafone Warriors to return to Cronulla Sutherland in 2016.

Tonight it becomes three when the long-time teammates, friends and halves partners line up against each other, Johnson (31 last September) back where his heart belongs at the Vodafone Warriors and Townsend (31 in January this year) running out for his new club the North Queensland Cowboys.

And, as they did in their only other encounters as rivals, they’ll both be in the #7 jersey for the fifth-round battle between the two sides at Redcliffe’s Moreton Daily Stadium.

Now in the senior stages of their careers, they’re hired guns for their clubs for the same purpose – accomplished veterans who can bring a sense of stability, calmness and order when it’s most needed in such a frantic environment.

They both know so much about each other’s game, the product of countless hours spent on the training field, in video sessions, chats and discussions and in the trenches together in pitched combat.

How they’re able to match wits or put one over the other when they’re so familiar with each other will be the captivating feature of their individual contest within the overall battle tonight.

They must do so even though they’ve formed a mutual admiration society through their time together.

Townsend's admiration was all too clear when he was told Johnson was returning to the Vodafone Warriors in 2022.

"Just the maturity he's shown over the last three years," he said of his teammate and friend.

"He's had to move out of his comfort zone, to a new club, learn a little bit of a new culture. The Warriors are getting the ultimate professional.

"I've seen Shaun, the work he's put in day in, day out... he's got nothing but love for the Warriors.

"When he told me that it was all done, I was super happy for him. I think the club gets a big professional, but also a great player."

On Townsend’s podcast, Johnson reflected on the pair being “just boys” when they teamed up at the Vodafone Warriors before being reunited at the Sharks.

“We’ve both grown in aspects of the game and in life,” he said.

“Coming back and picking up (at the Sharks) it’s so easy for us.

"When you left (the Warriors) I was so gutted because, bro, we were just starting to click playing some awesome footy that year, some awesome footy. I remember thinking if we could have stuck out one more year, who knows what might have happened.”

Their relationship goes all the way back to late 2013 when Townsend joined the Vodafone Warriors for preseason training ahead of the 2014 campaign. He and Johnson were paired up 34 times in 2014 and 2015 and it would have been more but for injuries which impacted on Johnson’s availability.

Townsend finished with the club earlier than scheduled, returning to Sydney on compassionate grounds.

Over the next three seasons the accomplices became foes twice with Townsend emerging on the victorious side in two intense confrontations with the Vodafone Warriors – 19-18 at Shark Park in 2016 and 16-12 at Mount Smart Stadium in 2018.

Fate would then bring the pair back together again, this time with Johnson signing for the Sharks.

Over his three seasons there in 2019, 2020 and 2021 he and Townsend played alongside each other 31 times but only three last year when first Townsend was released – and reunited with the Vodafone Warriors – while Johnson had a hamstring injury which prematurely ended his time at the Sharks.

Unfortunately for Townsend a shoulder injury prevented him lining up against Cronulla and Johnson in round 17 when the Kiwi delivered a masterclass in the Sharks’ 20-12 victory.

Now, almost four years after last going head-to-head, they have a long-awaited date tonight. They can't wait. Nor can the fans.

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