Shaun Johnson on cloud Nines for big weekend

STAR MAN: Shaun Johnson has been in fine form for the Warriors.
STAR MAN: Shaun Johnson has been in fine form for the Warriors.

For some clubs the Auckland Nines is merely an annoying distraction. But for others, including the Warriors, it's a massive deal.

The Raiders showed contempt for the competition by naming a desperately under strength team for the tournament that kicks off at Eden Park this Saturday. But the Warriors have named their best possible side and are rightly seen as favourites to take out the inaugural title.

Shaun Johnson will fill a key role in the Warriors side as their playmaker and it's off him that the likes of Sam Tomkins, Glen Fisiiahi, Konrad Hurrell and Ngani Laumape will feed.

"I'm really pumped about it and for the fans it's going to be really exciting," Johnson said about what lies ahead.

"There is all the talk about the sevens and the atmosphere that creates, but what the nines is about is that people will be coming to watch players that they recognise, players they see each week running around in the NRL.

"I'll probably have a bit of fun out there and I'm sure all of the players will."

Tomkins was such a success in the Super League because of his ability to inject himself into the line at just the right time and his sweeping runs which enabled him to get past the best defences. It's those abilities that should allow him to shine at the Nines.

A few months ago Johnson ended Tomkins and England's World Cup dreams by scoring a last-gasp try at Wembley Stadium in the semifinals.

That's been put behind them and Johnson says the two have already formed a solid friendship.

"He has been really good here," Johnson said.

"He's a real competitive person and that's something I noticed first off and it's something we really needed in this team, someone who's going to yell at you from the back and compete in everything.

"He's been a really good addition to the side so far and I'm sure our combination will build."

There is $400,000 up for grabs for the winning team in the Nines, but the rewards for the Warriors could be bigger than that.

They will be exposed to 90,000 people over the two days at Eden Park and that gives them an opportunity to increase interest and membership numbers for the 2014 season.

"Regardless of how we perform, it's promotion of rugby league in New Zealand and that's been outstanding," Warriors CEO Wayne Scurrah said.

"It has got every potential of being New Zealand's largest annual event and if we can ensure that the event runs well and have new people coming to the game that haven't seen the NRL before, it raises the awareness of how popular a sport this is.

"This is a big opportunity for New Zealand rugby league, the zones and especially Auckland Rugby League as it's in their backyard.

"One of the hopes is that more kids will roll up to their local club and want to play the game.

"From our point of view we're going to be doing some things around the two days to attract more members and also promote our schedule."

The players in the Warriors' nines squad won't start specific training for the tournament until tomorrow, with all of their work so far focussing on their NRL campaign.

Johnson was one of the last players to join up with the Warriors squad for this season, along with the others who played for the Kiwis at the World Cup.

Since arriving, Johnson says he's felt a changed environment inside the camp.

"The main thing I've noticed since coming back is how much more comfortable everyone is around each other," he said.

"We know our systems now, we know how things operate and we're familiar with Matty's coaching plans.

"It's been heaps smoother and we haven't had to spend the bulk of the preseason trying to get ourselves in shape, because the coaching staff set some standards that we had to come back at.

"So it's been all about footy, game plans and defence."

Sunday News