Hey Cronulla Sharks, Shaun Johnson is not the problem
Whether they subscribe to the opinion that he was "too inconsistent" or "needed more help" at the Warriors, footy fans across the Tasman knew the Shaun Johnson blame game would get here eventually.
Clawing their way to 6th on the ladder while Johnson, Aaron Woods, Matt Moylan and Wade Graham sat on the sidelines, the Sharks have lost three in a row since their collective return.
Considered premiership smokey's just a month ago, the Sharks are in disarray and it's Johnson in the hot seat. He was hooked in their last match and club legends have called for him to be dropped.
However, there is a lot more to Cronulla's recent struggles than Johnson.
Despite not being the sole problem, Johnson can be the answer.
That Broncos Game
Being the man behind almost every loss his side suffers has been part of Johnson's career since it started.
He wore them at the Warriors for seven years, and now he's allegedly the reason behind Cronulla's three consecutive losses. At least, he's the main culprit behind the most embarrassing of the lot in Round 16.
Johnson isn't playing his best football right now. Few would argue that he's even close. But who does after missing seven weeks with a hamstring injury? Most players are afforded a week or two to get their legs back under them.
Not Johnson, it would seem.
But let's move on to the real cause of the recent talk about dropping the Kiwi international to reserve grade: Cronulla's 24-22 loss to Brisbane.
Sunday's loss was a shocker for the Sharks. Nobody tipped the most inexperienced Broncos side ever to cause an upset. Those north of the border will have considered switching it off when their side let through three tries in ten minutes to find themselves 22-12 down.
The Sharks had the game won - until they didn't.
Instead of sticking with the popular and easy-to-shout "Johnson's fault", let's look at where things really went wrong for the Sharks.
It started with Kyle Flanagan's deliberate knee to the head of Matt Lodge. The senseless relieving penalty 99-metres from Brisbane's goal line was soon compounded by a Woods slow peel. With the piggyback up the field, the Broncos scored to pull within six points.
A Josh Morris error, Chad Townsend error, two Jayson Bukuya errors and another two Woods penalties added to Cronulla's woes.
Finally, the Broncos scored the match-winner.
All the headlines read Johnson, but it's clear where it all went wrong on the match-losing play for the Sharks.
Tevita Pangai Jr's pass is called a miracle ball. It's a brilliant offload and worthy of all the highlight reels it will now feature. However, it's unlikely to end with a try if not for a lazy Woods effort in defence.
Just look at this replay of the try.
The gap between Woods and his outside man is so big he isn't even in the frame. Morris - who is playing fullback by this stage - is in the line as the A defender. As he sprints across the field in anticipation of a kick or a covering tackle, it's up to Woods to fill the now vacant spot in the defensive line.
By simply drifting across and finishing the play, the 111kg prop can put himself in a position to swallow the 82kg Jake Turpin to save the game.
Paging John Morris
John Morris is a rookie coach, and so far, most would say he's done a pretty good job.
But he can do better and can start by strapping himself into some New Zealand Warriors tape.
Morris isn't putting Johnson in spots on the field that allow him to produce the plays he's famous for. Filling more of a traditional halfback role at times and sticking to the right-side channel, Johnson doesn't have space to operate.
He's considered a "running half", but it's a term that can be misinterpreted.
Cameron Munster is similarly regarded. Averaging 92.95 metres per game, the Storm five-eighth is getting a lot further up the field on his feet than Johnson's 57.1 running metres per game. However, a lot of Munster's running metres come on the short side on the back of a quick play-the-ball. Aided by the maestro at dummy half, Munster simply needs to put himself in the right spots and Cameron Smith will find him.
Many are being left disappointed by Johnson's numbers after expecting something similar. However, Johnson's 57 running metres per game in 2019 is only nine metres behind his career average. Despite being seen to run a lot when playing well, Johnson has never been one to accumulate exceptionally high running metre numbers.
The difference between him and Munster is where they take possession of the football on the occasions they do run.
Johnson is at his most dangerous from the middle of the field. Ideally, the forwards work to the middle, create a split, and feed Johnson.
As he drifts across the field, the defence drifts with him. With his big right foot step Johnson straightens up, sits the defence in their chair, and asses his options.
He can apply another step to expose a lazy inside defender, take the line on himself, or send the ball out wide based on his backrower and who the defence is turning in or out on.
Taking possession as the second receiver here, but still in the middle, Johnson drifts before using the step to get past two big bodies scrambling across the field.
Even without the ball on this next play, a drifting Johnson catches Lachlan Lewis short forcing him to shoot across. Taking notice and moving in to cover the lead runner, the Morris twins are caught flat-footed with a shift through the hands enough for David Fusitu'a to score.
It's that initial drift that causes the defence trouble. It's then when Johnson asks questions and makes a play depending on how the defence answers.
He needs the space, though.
Asking him to run simply because he's "a running half" is where the Sharks are going wrong. He ran the ball 18 times for 132 metres only seven days before the much-talked-about loss to the Broncos. Still, he isn't considered to have played well in the loss to the Bulldogs.
The Sharks signed Johnson on a whim. It was an opportunity they couldn't afford to pass up given the unlikely nature at which he became available. However, it's an opportunity the Sharks will ultimately miss if they don't make the adjustments to get the most out of him.