New Zealand halfback Shaun Johnson is thrilled to be back in England, admitting that it is one of his favourite places in which to perform on the field.
The 28-year-old, who won the Golden Boot in 2014, a year after scoring a last-minute try at Wembley to knock England out of the 2013 World Cup, is coming off his best NRL season in recent memory, which helped the New Zealand Warriors end a seven-year finals drought.
The mercurial Johnson can polarise fans in his native country, but he has reached new levels of consistency in 2018 for his club, and was named man of the match in last week’s upset 26-24 victory over the Kangaroos.
It’s a positive platform for Johnson, setting him up to perform well in an arena that he enjoys.
“I love playing there,” said Johnson, who is one of the most experienced members of a youthful Kiwis backline.
“It doesn’t really get much better.”
The singing, passion and pure tribalism on display among English league fans doesn’t really exist to the same degree in Australasia unless it comes from Tongan and Samoan supporters, and it’s something that Johnson clearly thrives on.
“They are chanting, into you, hostile but that is where you want to be, that is where you want to be with your brothers,” said Johnson.
“My homework started on the England players [a week ago], watching a few of them running around in the [Super League] Grand Final.”
Johnson has been kryptonite for England in recent years. He broke English fans’ hearts with that try in the 2013 World Cup semi final in London, just when the home side looked to be heading for the final. He was also pivotal the last time the two teams met, with a long-range try then a decisive drop-goal to seal victory in Huddersfield in 2016, while he helped the Kiwis to a narrow victory in the 2014 Four Nations semi-final in Dunedin.
He’s been given a free role by coach Michael Maguire in the Kiwis’ set-up, with the aim being to make the most of his freewheeling talents.
“In this environment, there is no set guideline about where you have to play,” said Johnson.
“I can be a bit more hands-on, I can be out the back, it’s just whatever goes and you play whatever you play.”
Like Johnson, prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves has also enjoyed a redemptive 2018. Often accused of not fronting in big matches, despite a 199-game NRL career, the 29-year dispelled that belief with a series of strong performances in the finals series, culminating in a monster effort in the 21-6 Grand Final win for the Roosters over the Storm. He then continued that form against the Kangaroos in Auckland, in the process achieving his first victory over Australia.
“It’s been a pretty big ten months,” said Waerea-Hargreaves.
“You’ve got to start somewhere but obviously I am really happy with the way I am travelling, and the way we are all travelling, but we have to continue to work hard.”
Like Johnson, Waerea-Hargreaves is wary of the threat posed by Wayne Bennett’s men.
“We have three big matches and [they are] a quality side,” said Waerea-Hargreaves.
“We are ready for the challenge [and] looking forward to spending some quality time together. But we know it is going to be a tough challenge ahead of us.”