Johnson evolves from 2011 dazzler to Warriors destroyer

Twelve years ago New Zealand Warriors half Shaun Johnson announced himself as a rugby league superstar with one of the best individual tries scored at Suncorp Stadium.

"Shaun had us on ice skates," former Brisbane Broncos captain Alex Glenn told AAP.

Glenn, playing second-row, was one of the seven Broncos players Johnson razzled and dazzled past in a 70m run to the tryline as the Warriors lost 21-20 in round 22.

Now 33, Johnson returns to the same venue on Saturday night in the preliminary final against the Broncos a complete player and the ultimate game manager.

Former Broncos winger Jharal Yow Yeh was another player Johnson stepped and accelerated past in 2011.

"I do remember that well," Yow Yeh grinned.

"Shaun Johnson is a very scary prospect. He is not the flashy player that he used to be and that scares me even more.

"That's because he has players like (fullback) Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and (winger) Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to be flashy around him and finish off what he creates."

Johnson is one of the favourites for the Dally M Medal this year. He has the most try assists in the NRL with 29. His kicking game and defence have been on-song.

Warriors chief executive Cameron George watched Johnson in his 2011 rookie season and summed up the player's evolution.

"That try against the Broncos ... it was absolutely brilliant," George told AAP.

"A superstar was announced.

"Shaun's body has changed, his game has changed and he has developed into an all-round superstar now and the complete game manager."

Johnson spent a difficult year away from his young family last year when the Warriors were based in Redcliffe because of COVID-19 rules. He struggled to find his best.

Glenn, Johnson's former New Zealand Test teammate, has no doubt about why he has regained his mojo this year.

"I don't feel like he is a different player. I just feel like he is back where he belongs," Glenn said.

"As a footy player you always play your best when home life is good. He is back at home with his family and where he started his career so everything is aligning for him."

Glenn recalled the nightmares Johnson caused him as a player and said the wily veteran would still have him anxious today.

"I was always nervous marking up against him," Glenn said.

"Everyone has that first moment when they go ice skating and fall over. That is what happens when Shaun Johnson steps you. He has a background of playing touch."

Former Warriors coach and current recruiting boss Andrew McFadden identified the key changes in Johnson's football over the past 12 years.

"Shaun was an unbelievable athlete in 2011 and could go the length of the field and beat people with ease on instinct," the ex-Canberra, Parramatta and Melbourne half told AAP.

"He would probably admit he wasn't thinking too much back then. He was just reacting.

"He is certainly in rare form now with the way he controls a game and is just in the zone in terms of managing a game. When you put pressure on him he knows how to handle it.

"I know every team tries to come up with a game plan to stifle him but he understands his game so well that generally he can counter what they throw at him."

In 2011 the Warriors made the grand final, losing 24-10 to Manly.

After starring in the 40-10 win over Newcastle last week, Johnson said his aim on returning to the Warriors last year after three years at Cronulla was to go one better.

"When I signed back here, it was on the basis of winning and believing that we could do something," Johnson said.

"Obviously last year was rough for a lot of reasons but then when a great man like Andrew Webster signs on to coach the side, you get pretty excited by that. I had a relationship with him prior and I knew that he could bring something pretty special here.

"(Webster has brought) confidence, belief. It's just not me, it's what he's created as a culture where you just want to be a part of it."

He would not compare the past with the present as he prepared to return to the Sunshine State.

"Can we just say it's different and leave it at that? It's all eyes forward," he said.

"It's all about now. It's always been all about now.

"You don't want to be letting anyone down. We've spoken about how we've all got to row in the same direction and I feel like everyone's doing that at the moment."

Johnson's head-to-head battle with Brisbane captain and half Adam Reynolds, also 33, will be key to deciding Saturday night's sold-out blockbuster.

"I have had many a battle with Shaun over the last decade and I love playing against him. He is a great competitor," Reynolds said.

"He is the heartbeat of the Warriors team and he has had a fantastic season. It is just another one of those clashes I am looking forward to."