Olympic gold dazzles for Shaun Johnson

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 26/08/2012
Shaun Johnson
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SHOW ON THE ROAD: Shaun Johnson and the Warriors will play a regular season game in Wellington next year.

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New Zealand Sevens' coach Gordon Tietjens plans to initiate face-to-face discussions with Shaun Johnson, but the Warriors star faces a sizeable pay cut if he chases an Olympic gold medal.

Johnson caused a stir last week when he revealed a keen interest to leave the Warriors and link with Sevens guru Tietjens to pursue a place in his squad for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

The superstar halfback, who burst on to the league scene last year with a standout rookie NRL season, spoke of being struck by the awe of the recent London Olympics and appeal that a gold medal held for all sportsmen.

Johnson had considered the facts before speaking publicly. He is off contract with the Warriors at the end of 2014, giving him ample time to push for the Olympic Sevens. It is understood he could commit solely to Sevens and would not have to play the 15-man format.

In light of this week's developments, Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah admitted that Johnson might request a groundbreaking league sabbatical in his next contract. That option would allow a return to the club later, but might also leave Johnson significantly out of pocket.

“The next Olympics are outside of his current contract term," Scurrah told the Sunday Star-Times. "When we sit down to negotiate, his agent might say ‘how about a sabbatical?' We haven't done it before. Not many clubs have, if any.”

Johnson is thought to be earning between $200,000 and $250,000 at the Warriors. The Star-Times understands top Sevens specialists heading to Rio can expect a maximum salary of $150,000.

“I don't imagine Sevens players earn anywhere near what an NRL player does,” Scurrah said. “The new salary cap out of the new broadcast deal is likely to make it very attractive for NRL players. Guys like Shaun are going to earn more money. That's going to be a huge attraction.

“Shaun isn't going to be an average NRL player and some are earning up to $1 million.”

New Zealand Rugby Union general manager of professional rugby Neil Sorensen confirmed the interest in Johnson, but also conceded Sevens could not compete with the Warriors' pay-packets.

“We won't be in a position to have a whole bunch of Sevens players earning $200,000 or $300,000 a year,” Sorensen said. “I don't visualise anybody coming across to play Sevens to make some big dollars. It's about the lure of the gold medal.

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“If he is keen to have a crack at Rio we would be looking right now to contract him through 2015 and 16. I'm sure he could be a future star in this format.”

Johnson's interest in Sevens does not appear to be money-driven. It is more about the challenge of competing in the world's largest sporting event.

Tietjens was enthused at the prospect of luring Johnson, and revealed he would approach the player's manager, Peter Brown, for a sit-down after the Warriors' final two games of the season to discuss a temporary code switch.

“Post-season is a great opportunity to sit down with Shaun and his manager to discuss options,” Tietjens said.

“At the moment it's hot off the press. He's still got a couple of weeks in his season to go. After that, it's generally time out for those players. It would then be a good time to discuss what he wants.

“It would be exciting to give him the opportunity to play Sevens. Discussions would have to take place between the Warriors and the New Zealand Rugby Union.”

Former Kiwis standoff Henry Paul, who made a successful transition to the England Sevens team, is an example of what Johnson could achieve.

Johnson, 21, could be viewed as a playmaker replacement for Tomasi Cama, 31.

Before making the Olympic team, the Warriors halfback would be required to attend Tietjens' training camps and then compete in tournaments on the 2015 World Series circuit to prove his capabilities.

“Ideally, some of those newer players would be involved in IRB World Series tournaments before the Olympics,” Tietjens said.

Competition for Olympic spots will be intense. High-profile All Blacks, such as Israel Dagg and Liam Messam, are likely to be available after the Rugby World Cup in 2015.

- Sunday Star Times

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