Rugby League: Shaun Johnson claims Warriors coach Stephen Kearney 'didn't like me'

New Cronulla Sharks recruit Shaun Johnson has come out swinging, claiming Warriors coach Stephen Kearney "didn't like me".

The halfback signed a three-year deal with the 2016 champion Sharks on Saturday, after being released early by the Warriors, who felt he wasn't worth his hefty million-dollar price tag.

He played 162 NRL matches with the Warriors since 2011 and left the club as the team's highest points scorer.

Johnson downplayed any beef with the club in his first interview with the Sydney media on Thursday, but has told The Daily Telegraph that his relationship with Kearney had been on the downward slide over the past two years.

The pair's relationship dates back to 2012, when Kearney handed the playmaker his first Kiwis test.

Shaun Johnson in a Sharks jersey.
Shaun Johnson in a Sharks jersey. Photo credit:

To date, Johnson has played 29 tests for the Kiwis - 20 of those under Kearney, five under former coach David Kidwell and four under current boss Michael Maguire.

Kearney left the Kiwis role at the end of 2016 to take the Warriors job, leading them to the finals for the first time since Johnson's debut season in 2011.

The former Golden Boot winner said he and Kearney had serious issues over the past two years, and he was furious over the way the club handled his contract negotiations, which led to him requesting a release and taking a reported six-figure pay cut to join the Sharks.

"I've been there eight years and had six coaches," Johnson told The Daily Telegraph. "The sixth coach didn't like me, so what.

"I rode the tough times, I tried to keep fans engaged, I tried to play a style that got kids excited every week.

"I know that, my family knows that, which is why I can say, 'no, it [leaving] doesn't really affect me'.

"Regardless of what a CEO says, that's been there a year or two, it [love for the club] dates back a lot longer for me."

Stephen Kearney with Shaun Johnson after the Warriors win over the Raiders.
Stephen Kearney with Shaun Johnson after the Warriors win over the Raiders. Photo credit: Getty

When Johnson made his debut in 2011, Ivan Cleary was coach and the Warriors have since had Brian McClennan, Tony Iro, Matt Elliott, Andrew McFadden and now Kearney at the helm.

Johnson hit out at the fact he was "left out" of all discussions about the Warriors' playing rosters, as he was not in the team leadership group that consisted of Blake Green, former skipper Simon Mannering, and forward recruits Adam Blair and Tohu Harris.

But he will be involved in discussions in the Shire, as coach Shane Flanagan is open to sharing his plans with players.

"The Raiders obviously reached out and the Roosters were appealing, but the Sharks with the roster and squad they've got, that’s ultimately what excited me the most and where I felt I could add the most real value," Johnson said.

"You want to go somewhere and know what is going on with the squad, and Flanno [Shane Flanagan] was unreal in letting me know the exact status of every player.

"Like, when they're signed until and what they might be thinking.

"I was a part of that discussion the first day I came over and that was really big for me.

"I hadn't had a conversation like that at the Warriors for the last few years. I'd been left out of those conversations.

"So to come here, and be brought in and told, 'you're going to be in a key position for us, you need to know what is going on around you', I was like, 'ahh, thank you'."

Johnson added he felt like his game could go to a new level with the Sharks, playing alongside former Warriors teammate Chad Townsend in the halves.

Townsend joined the Warriors for the 2014-15 seasons from the Sharks and played 41 games for the Auckland franchise, but family reasons saw him return to Cronulla.

Shaun Johnson with Chad Townsend.
Shaun Johnson with Chad Townsend. Photo credit: Photosport

"The Warriors have been so good for me in that sense, building me, building me, building me, but I've sort of hit a plateau there," Johnson said.

"There's always things I'm improving in my game, but just [not] that freshness side of things to really elevate yourself. I'm looking forward to it.

"There's not too much point talking about it, you've got to show. You've got to show you were brought here for a reason, which is what I’m looking forward to."

The Sydney Morning Herald reports the Warriors have enquired about Gold Coast Titans youngster AJ Brimson as a replacement. 

The 20-year-old made his Titans debut in 2018 and can play as five eighth, halfback or fullback.

His contract with the Titans expires at the end of 2020.