Opinion: Reports of Shaun Johnson's demise are greatly exaggerated

OPINION: Of all the hair-brain theories that have swirled around the struggling Warriors in recent seasons, perhaps the dumbest is that they would be better off ditching Shaun Johnson.

That's a notion that would have the other 15 clubs pumping their fists with glee, not just because they wouldn't have to face the Golden Boot winner in a Warriors jersey, but also because one of them would presumably have a chance of snapping him up on the open market.

Now that the club has seemingly turned its fortunes around and rattled off a 6-1 start to the 2018 NRL season, including a victory over previously unbeaten St George-Illawarra Dragons, this seems like the perfect time to start tinkering with a winning line-up, right?

And now that Mason Lino, 24, has had a couple of chances in the No.7 spot (but not the jersey yet) and made a fine fist of things, Johnson, 27, seems to be living on borrowed time at Mt Smart Stadium.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

This kind of thinking comes from those who insisted the All Blacks would be better without Dan Carter - and then he was named 2015 International Player of the Year.

Sure, the All Blacks had Beauden Barrett coming up behind Carter (although no-one quite understood how good he was then) and they haven't missed a beat through the transition since, but Lino is no Barrett.

If we can continue this awkward cross-code comparison just a few seconds longer, Lino is perhaps more of a Stephen Donald - a nice player to wheel out for a cameo, but not a full-time starter.

Sure, everyone will talk him up because a) he's a hard-working kid and they want him to do well, b) they want to keep his confidence high and c) they also want Johnson to feel like his role is in jeopardy.

In reality, there is still daylight between the two.

Lino has done a fantastic job stepping up and will get another chance against the Melbourne Storm on Wednesday.

He has the advantage that very few teams have actually seen him in action and if they have, they've probably forgotten him, because he had never played in a winning first-grade performance in nine appearances before this season.

You know they will scout him heavily now - just as they've scouted Johnson for years - and the nuggety Lino can expect to do a lot of tackling in future. By the way, he has a 66.7 percent tackling efficiency, compared to Johnson's 84.5 percent, which is right around the team average (86.5).

If anything, Lino's success this season perfectly illustrates how much better this Warriors roster is across the park than previous versions.

In the past, the Warriors would throw the ball to Johnson and hope he could perform a miracle. For various reasons, he couldn't do that often enough to make them competitive.

Mason Lino
Mason Lino scores against St George-Illawarra Dragons. Photo credit: Photosport

With Blake Green now directing play, a rejuvenated Issac Luke terrorising markers from dummy half, and hardmen like Adam Blair and Tohu Harris protecting his back, Lino - and Johnson, when he suits up - can concentrate on doing what he does best.

For the understudy, that's keeping things simple and playing what's in front of him. For Johnson, that's asking questions of the defence by probing for half-gaps or throwing audacious miss-out passes that free David Fusitu'a out wide.

The difference between Lino and Johnson is the difference between the Warriors contending for playoffs and actually contending for a title.

Yes, 'Magic' Johnson can be infuriating at times. Part of that is because, as a so-called 'million-dollar player', he's been expected to make million-dollar plays, as well as all the bargain-basement plays too.

He's still the franchise player and with a better cast of role players around him, he can now concentrate on being the x-factor that wins tight games. Queue the last two minutes against Canberra Raiders.

Lino has done a great job for the Warriors so far this campaign and he will need to continue that role, especially if Johnson's injury ("I have a lot of good people taking good care of my groin") continues to linger.

But please, let's not trade in the Maserati for a Prius. 

Grant Chapman is Newshub's Digital Sport Editor