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Forget the flashy highlight reel tries, the freakish speed and step, Shaun Johnson, now 32, is a different player and person to that fresh-faced kid who lit the NRL up in 2011.

But the Warriors’ halfback doesn’t see that as him going backward, far from it, he believes 2023 – his 13th in the NRL – can be one of his best seasons yet, even if it’s in a different role from how he made his name.

Ahead of Friday’s season opener against the Newcastle Knights in Wellington, Johnson says he’s still growing and improving.

“Obviously with me, coming into the league I was the flairy, fast, steppy guy and now everyone’s going “he doesn’t have the speed,” Johnson said on Monday.

A fact Johnson, who re-joined his junior club from the Sharks last season, doesn’t debate but also refuses to be defined by.

“I think as you get a bit older you probably get a bit stronger in the head, you adjust your game, you learn to play to your strengths and what suits the team around you.”

One of the most polarising figures in the club’s history, Johnson’s talk of a big season will fall flat with some Warriors fans until they see some deeds to back up the words.

Last year was far from his best and the veteran of 227 NRL matches has, at times, been plagued by inconsistency, claims that he goes missing in games, and no longer takes the defensive line on with his running game – now the once electric speed isn’t quite what it was.

“That might frustrate people at times when they don’t see the highlights stuff that they want to see,” Johnson said.

“For me, I’m continuing to grow, I’m continuing to learn, just in different areas.”

Johnson, who confirmed he will be in the halves alongside Te Maire Martin when Andrew Webster names his first team on Tuesday, is no stranger to the weight of expectation.

“Those things get put on my shoulders most years but I think for myself, it’s a pretty privileged position to be in.

“And if that means for some reason it’s not the accolades or the highlights or whatever but we’re winning, that’s fine by me,” Johnson said.

“Whatever it takes to win.

“We don’t roll through these doors and want to improve every day not to win and that’s what we want to do.”

With maturity, the former Kiwis halfback now understands who his most important critics are.

“The only opinions I probably really care about are the ones of the boys downstairs, that’s all that really matters to me, so I’m driven to prove myself to them and I’m driven to prove to myself that I still belong in this arena.

“I’ve still got something to offer, because I’m still getting better.”

Webster has challenged Johnson to think about how he wants his legacy to be remembered at the club and it has inspired him to be hungry to re-establish himself at Mt Smart.

“It’s probably something I never thought about until the question was asked,” Johnson said.

“I never played my career thinking about how am I going to be remembered, I’ve just played it in the moment.”

A major part of Johnson’s 2023 confidence comes from having his first full pre-season in years, after missing the Kiwis squad for last year’s World Cup, and training injury free before Christmas. Factors that have seen him tip the scales at more than 2kg lighter than his playing weight in recent seasons.

There will always be doubters but Johnson said the support of genuine fans also matters to the playing group.

“We’ve got a real chance this year to re-establish ourselves back here and connect with our fans, which we haven’t been able to do and inspire some of the young Kiwi kids coming through.”

The much-maligned halfback has also copped plenty of criticism when it hasn’t always been warranted too.

Johnson was unexpectedly isolated from his family during the 2022 NRL season, including his wife Kayla and young daughter Millah, when the Warriors remained in Australia because of the surge in Covid-19 cases from the Delta variant.

“Being home, being around family, being able to be a dad, being able to see my mum, my dad, friends, all the stuff that you probably take for granted when you’ve never not had it, so it has certainly been the key factor,” Johnson said of his pre-season.