NRL 2023: NZ Warriors veteran halfback Shaun Johnson hailed as difference-maker in hot start to season

A better culture, impressive resilience, and certainly on Sunday,  a reinvigorated Shaun Johnson have been the hallmarks of NZ Warriors' best start to a season in five years. 

Johnson iced the game-winning moment in their 16-14 win over the Bulldogs at Mount Smart Stadium, with the star half earning praise for his impact on both sides of the ball.

Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo knew who did the damage. He had two words when asked what the difference between the two sides was. 

"Shaun Johnson," he told media after the match.

Johnson celebrates his try.
Johnson celebrates his try. Photo credit: Getty Images

Johnson's dummy and dart under the posts in the 66th minute drew them level, with his kick giving them the edge they would hold on to with dear life until the full-time siren went. 

It was fittingly in the side's first game at Mt Smart this season that he wound back the clock to seal the win.

"Yeah, I mean that moment will never get old," Johnson said. "And it's a moment I think any player would never shy away from. 

"It's the moments that you work so hard away from the 80 minutes you guys see out there.

"The volume of work I've been able to get in my body throughout the pre-season and the clarity and belief the coaching staff have instilled in me gives me the confidence to execute in those moments."

It's not just his attacking flare that's caught attention either. His defence, as well as the team's, was again the difference. 

"I feel really confident in my [defence]," Johnson said. "I feel like we're solving a lot collectively which is helping me individually, but you're right, I have got an emphasis in my defence. 

The veteran was also keen to point out the efforts of the team. Another strong effort from the forwards allowed the rest of the side to flex their muscles. 

"It's hard to single out one good performance, with our good start to the season it's hard to single out one player," Johnson said. 

"That showed again [Sunday] with the absence of those two [Wayde Egan and Tohu Harris]. Our middle stepped up again, our edges stepped up. It's a squad effort and when you lose two key players like that it speaks for itself." 

But a confident Johnson is good for everyone. 

"It's really good as a team to see that from your half and it's no secret with Shauny, he's probably one of our most potent attacking players," utility Dylan Walker said. "To see him do it on the defensive side, it just gives everyone a lift.

"Shaun's toughness is what's most important for us, the way he tackled today, the way he handled [Viliame] Kikau was unbelievable," Webster said, 

But Webster knows they can't stand still after another slow start hurt them again.

"If you don't laugh, you cry, because it's killing us. But we gotta fix it quick," he said.