One of the most dazzling individual talents rugby league has witnessed, Shaun Johnson has spearheaded many famous international victories – as well as breaking New Zealand’s all-time Test pointscoring record – during an eight-season tenure in the Kiwis jersey.
Johnson’s mesmerising footwork, speed and ball skills first drew attention on the touch football field, but the Hibiscus Coast and Northcote junior’s destiny lay in professional rugby league and he took the first steps towards his dream by breaking into the Warriors’ NYC team in 2009.
The halfback scored 398 points (including 24 tries) in 45 under-20s games, culminating in an NYC grand final victory in 2010. Johnson subsequently starred in the Junior Kiwis’ drawn two-match series with the Junior Kangaroos.
After recovering from a back injury, Johnson took the NRL by storm in 2011. The 20-year-old debuted in Round 13 and blew minds on a weekly basis with a string of blistering solo tries. His majestic cross-field run to set up Lewis Brown’s match-sealing try in the Warriors’ preliminary final upset of Melbourne gained an instant place in NRL finals folklore.
Johnson sparked a late comeback in the grand final a week later, but the Warriors ultimately went down 24-10 to Manly. Later named the NZRL’s Kiwi Rookie of the Year, he was unavailable for a likely Four Nations call-up for New Zealand due to injury.
But a Kiwis debut was not far away. Selected at halfback for the 2012 Anzac Test at Eden Park, Johnson announced himself on the international stage with a 90-metre intercept try in the 20-12 loss. A disappointing finish to his sophomore NRL campaign saw Johnson left out of the side for the post-season Test against Australia but he was nevertheless named RLIF’s Rookie of the Year.
Johnson returned for the 2013 Anzac Test and – after a highlights-stacked NRL campaign with the erratic Warriors – set about lighting up the Rugby League World Cup. The ball-playing wizard racked up 76 points in six matches at the tournament, including a 24-point haul (two tries, eight goals) in the Kiwis’ pool win over France. But Johnson left his most indelible mark in the dying seconds of the epic semi-final against England, scoring an astonishing solo try to level the scores before slotting the match-winning conversion after the siren. He was well-contained by the Kangaroos in a deflating 34-2 final loss, however.
But New Zealand had the wood on Australia over the next two seasons – largely thanks to Johnson’s genius. The 24-year-old was man-of-the-match in both 2014 Four Nations victories over the Kangaroos, producing a kick-and-chase try in the round-robin rout and burning Greg Inglis to score an unforgettable four-pointer in the Wellington-hosted final. Johnson, who started the year by winning Player of the Tournament honours at the inaugural NRL Auckland Nines, subsequently became New Zealand’s fourth winner of the Golden Boot award as the world’s outstanding player.
Some critics called for Johnson to be dropped ahead of the 2015 Anzac Test after a patchy start to the NRL season, but – in what has become a trademark throughout his career – he responded with a wonderful performance (including a try and five goals) in the Kiwis’ 26-12 triumph in Brisbane, their first mid-season defeat of the green-and-golds since 1998. Johnson went on arguably the hottest form streak of his career as the premiership headed into the home stretch, but tragically he broke his ankle while scoring a try against Manly. The injury shattered the Warriors’ finals prospects and ruled Johnson out of the end-of-year tour to England.
Johnson recovered to feature in all six of New Zealand’s Test assignments in 2016. He scored a try and slotted the match-winning field goal in a 17-16 eclipse of England in the Four Nations opener at Huddersfield, then went within a whisker of forcing a draw against Australia. Down by 10 with less than four minutes left, Johnson’s chip-and-regather set up a try for Jordan Rapana before the No.7 was held up over the try-line on fulltime. The Kiwis went down to the Kangaroos 34-8 in the final.
A knee injury sidelined Johnson for five weeks late in the 2017 NRL season, derailing the struggling Warriors’ tenuous playoffs hopes again. But he was back to full fitness for the World Cup, scoring tries in pool wins over Samoa and Scotland – the latter part of a 22-point haul that took Johnson past Matthew Ridge as New Zealand’s all-time top Test point-scorer.
A tough year ended on a sour note with RLWC losses to Tonga and Fiji, but Johnson produced arguably his most consistent season at club level in 2018 – despite multiple injury interruptions, one of which forced his withdrawal from the Denver Test against England. Johnson helped lead the Warriors to their first Top 8 finish in seven years, before being named man-of-the-match in the Kiwis’ post-season upset of the Kangaroos in Auckland. He then kicked 11 goals in the subsequent 2-1 series loss in England. The four end-of-year Tests marked the first time Johnson had worn the No.6 jersey for his country, with Kodi Nikorima inside him at halfback.
An acrimonious split with the Warriors soon after the Kiwis returned from Britain saw Johnson – the club’s eight-season linchpin and greatest-ever point-scorer – link with Cronulla ahead of the 2019 season. While his form at the Sharks was inconsistent and again hampered by injuries, he made a triumphant return to Mount Smart Stadium mid-season. Johnson teamed up in the halves with Benji Marshall for the first time since his 2012 debut and scored two first-half tries in the emphatic 34-14 victory.
Named in the Team of the Tournament after a brilliant weekend for the Kiwis at the inaugural World Cup Nines in Sydney, Johnson was dropped from the Test team following a disappointing performance in the loss to Australia in Wollongong. But Johnson copped the demotion on the chin and, after coming back into the team for the injured Kieran Foran, starred in second-Test victory over Great Britain in Christchurch with a trademark individual try and an assist.
Despite being restricted to 16 games for the injury-ravaged Sharks in 2020 – with a ruptured Achilles tendon ruling him out of the finals – Johnson led the NRL with 23 try-assists, scored 120 points and finished equal-fifth in the Dally M Medal standings.
Only Adam Blair (35) and Issac Luke (33) played more Tests than Johnson (32) – who has missed only six matches for the Kiwis since his debut – during the 2010s. Johnson’s 223 Test points is 55 clear of the second-placed Ridge, while only 11 players have posted more Test tries for New Zealand than his 14 touchdowns.
Johnson’s perceived enigmatic tendencies – particularly at club level – have made him a perennial target for detractors, but his deeds in the international arena have secured his place in the pantheon of New Zealand’s all-time greats.