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A tale of two SJs: The legacy of Johnson & Jones

Few outside the club knew it at the time, but in the final months of 2008, when Stacey Jones answered an SOS call from Ivan Cleary to come out of retirement, the Little General was making a crucial contribution to the career of his heir apparent.  

Aged just 18 at the time, a scrawny touch player named Shaun Johnson was well and truly on the club’s radar as the possible long-term answer to their halves puzzle, something which had eluded them since Jones left the club for the south of France at the end of 2005. 

But he couldn’t be rushed. 

A significant talent with a mesmerizing ability to bamboozle defenders with footwork, speed and sleight of hand, Johnson was also a liability when it came time to defend back then. 

“One of the reasons we got Stacey back was because we looked at Shaun and realised he wasn't ready,” Cleary told 

“He was 18 and he looked about 15. 

“Shaun was in awe of Stacey, who was obviously a legend, and I know that Stace had his eye on Shaun for sure. You could tell Shaun was a really worthwhile project. 

“But we had to be patient, he was going to be something for sure, but there was time needed and stuff needed to get up to that level.  

You didn’t want him coming into the NRL, dropping back out, bouncing around clubs. He needed to be groomed as a Warriors halfback and that was going to take some time.

Ivan Cleary

"Guys like Stacey were the kind of blokes that needed to mentor him."

Jones saw out his one-year deal, and while it was an underwhelming six-win season that failed to build on the club's Preliminary Final run 12 months earlier, the role Jones was able to play in mentoring Johnson that year was priceless.

"There was a lot of hype around Shaun at the time, knowing that he was the future of the club," Jones told

"He did a number of sessions with the NRL group that year. I certainly knew it wasn't going to take him long to get into the first-grade system."

Stacey Jones inducted into NRL Hall of Fame

But the next 18 months, before he eventually broke through into the club's NRL side, were far from straightforward and serious question marks remained over Johnson's ability to handle the top flight. 

Despite the cries of a long-suffering fanbase, and an ever-changing halves makeup, Cleary resisted the urge to blood Johnson in the 2010 season.  

"To be perfectly honest, when he was playing in the 20s I was definitely concerned — obviously not about his talent, he was just carving that grade up — but defensively there were some major question marks," Cleary said. 

"We ended up playing him in New South Wales Cup in 2010 just to try and get him in front of men, because he was too good for 20s, but then at the same time he wasn't defensively.

His time in the New South Wales Cup from my memory wasn't hugely successful. There was definitely a period there in 2010 where he was treading water a little bit really, we weren't really sure.

Ivan Cleary

"It definitely wasn't all smooth sailing for him.

"Right up until he debuted there was this feeling like 'is he going to be able to cut it in the NRL Arena? We were very hopeful but it still wasn't until he got there that we were 100% sure.

"I remember his debut the next year, it was a really wet day in Sydney against the Roosters, we didn't win but I just remember he played well and was the real positive out of that day."

Johnson in action during his rookie season in 2009. ©NRL Photos
Johnson in action during his rookie season in 2009. ©NRL Photos

Johnson never looked back after that day and his list of achievements since mean that whenever his career does end, he'll sit right alongside Jones as one of the club's greatest players. 

Last weekend the 32-year-old hit his latest milestone when he joined Jones in becoming one of the five players who have reached 200 games for the Warriors. 

While Jones has undoubtedly helped make Johnson a better player during their years together, the former is quick to point out that he has "learned a hell of a lot from Shaun over the years" as well. 

Current head coach Andrew Webster believes the pair enhance each other, with results so far in 2023 suggesting their link is more important than ever. 

Johnson heads into Sunday's clash against the Sharks leading the NRL in kick metres and attacking kicks, along with having forced 16 drop outs and set up 16 tries in 17 appearances. 

"It's a cool relationship, seeing two great players at the club that are both halfbacks, working with each other," Webster said. 

"Stacey's had a huge impact on Shaun's career.... this year in particular, [Jones] has given him clarity around his kicking game, which has made life easier.

Outstanding SJ at it again

"Shaun, because it's simpler, gets to worry about other things. A free Shaun is a good player."

For Cleary meanwhile, there's a sense of joy in seeing his former playmaking project enjoying career-best form back at the Warriors, 12 years on from his NRL debut. 

"When I left the Warriors in 2011 one of biggest things I felt like I was going to miss was coaching Shaun, because you knew that he was going to be something special," Cleary said. 

"He was something the team and the club were crying out for, particularly after Stace.

"I think it's so good that he's been able to come back to the club and not just come back, but play so well."

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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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