Warriors face Johnson headache as Martin continues halfback hot streak

Publish Date
Sunday, 9 June 2024, 9:12AM

By Alex Powell

Following another impressive display by Te Maire Martin in the No 7 jersey, Warriors coach Andrew Webster welcomes the challenge of accommodating star man Shaun Johnson back into the fold.

For the better part of the last month, Johnson has been unavailable, after suffering an injury to his pectoral muscle in defeat to the Sydney Roosters.

But instead of faltering without Johnson, the Warriors have only gone from strength to strength with Martin playing at halfback.

In 2023, his first year at the Warriors, Martin struggled to fill Johnson’s void on two occasions, in losses to the Dolphins and Penrith Panthers, both away from home.

This time around, though, he’s been a revelation.

Against the Panthers in Brisbane, Dolphins at home, and on Saturday away to the North Queensland Cowboys, Martin has had the reins for three successive wins that have revived the Warriors’ season.

In Townsville, Martin laid on four try assists in a 42-12 victory, taking his tally to seven in three games - to go with a try - in Johnson’s absence.

That display came against his former side, who Martin left in 2019 after being forced into premature retirement after bleeding was discovered in his brain.

Five years and one comeback later, though, Webster is grateful Martin is playing in a Warriors kit, instead of a Cowboys one.

“Te Maire’s played a good three games now,” said Webster. “He’s been clinical.

“He’s been so important for us, he’s been the glue. I’m just so happy for him.

“He spent a bit of time up here, he knew what he was doing in familiar territory. He’s been awesome.

“We released him, let him play a bit. I’ve learned plenty about him.”

However, that form does leave the Warriors with a major headache - what does Webster do once all his halves are fit?

At the start of the year, Johnson and Luke Metcalf were the preferred pair, and began strongly as a combination, even if results showed a two wins, two loss record.

A broken leg against the Newcastle Knights, though, left Metcalf sidelined, and opened the door for Martin at five-eighth, before Johnson’s injury saw him move to halfback, and be partnered by Chanel Harris-Tavita.

Under Webster, the Warriors have prided themselves on a “next man up” mentality, where they think about the player coming in, instead of the one they’ve lost.

There’s no greater example of that than the halves, when also taking into account a short stint for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at five-eighth in that win over the Panthers.

And while Martin and Harris-Tavita as a combination has unquestionably worked, Webster won’t have any hesitation bringing Johnson back.

“The big thing we’ve worked around there is we can adapt our style for the individual, and how we want to play,” Webster continued.

“When Shaun comes back, we can adapt that again. I’m just so proud of anyone who’s played in those positions.

“I think they’re doing a great job. A lot of clubs would love the depth we’ve got in the halves. I’m really grateful we’ve got it. It puts us in the right steps for the future too.

“When Shaun comes back, we’re going to make sure it works for everyone, and everyone gets to display their strengths.

“Shaun gets to display his, how good he is. Chanel and Te Maire will play a pivotal role somewhere.”

After initially being slated to return to face the Cowboys at the time of his injury, Johnson was given another week off, and could come back against the Melbourne Storm next weekend.

Despite the success of Martin at halfback, bringing Johnson back is a no-brainer.

In 2023, the 33-year-old came within a whisker of winning the NRL’s Dally M medal, after a season that saw him score eight tries and lay on a career-best 29 assists.

This season, while admittedly playing in a struggling side, Johnson has still scored four and assisted nine more.

And while there might be a public desire not to change a winning side, the Warriors players know just what they’ll be getting as and when Johnson returns.

“Hopefully he can add what he brings to the side,” said captain Tohu Harris. “Everyone knows the things he can change in games, he can do things [other] people just can’t and won’t ever do in their careers.

“If he adds, on top of doing his job for the team, like what the guys in those positions are doing now, hopefully we can only get better from there.”

Saturday’s win sees the Warriors move to 10th on the ladder with 15 points, just one back from eighth position.

However, Webster’s side could be caught by any of the Canterbury Bulldogs, Newcastle Knights or Parramatta Eels, depending on results later on Sunday.

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission

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