Rare talent keen to avoid flame-out

ONE'S just come through it, the other is hoping not to go there at all.

We're talking the flame-out that seems to follow the starburst of breakout young league players like night follows day. We're talking Kevin Locke and Shaun Johnson.

One a Next Big Thing who has emerged from some serious growing pains to rank among the most dangerous fullbacks in the NRL, the other a young halfback who in a handful of games has shown enough game-breaking ability to justify the persistent whispers the Warriors have been nurturing a truly rare talent.

Johnson's twinkling feet, explosive pace and silky skills suggest the club may have finally unearthed the superstar playmaker that is mandatory for serious title challenges.

The 20-year-old Aucklander has scored four tries in his first eight games, each of them seemingly more spectacular than the last. Johnson appears more than ready for the big time on the field. The question is whether he is ready for superstardom off it.

"I can't really say," he says. "Look, it's really early days. I have played seven or eight first grade games.

I am definitely not going to get too far ahead of myself, there's no doubt about that. I'll take it as it comes and I guess I'll deal with it as it comes."

If anyone can help guide Johnson through the pitfalls and beer traps that await ascending young stars it is Locke. The parallels between Locke's mid-2009 breakthrough and Johnson's 2011 season are stark.

Locke shredded NRL defences from the moment his studs first hit the first grade turf. His star ascended rapidly but soon levelled out, and eventually dipped to the point where he was frequently left out of the side.

"I talk to him about it, just say that it does get hard," Locke says. "It comes with the game."

But will the dip come for Johnson? He's certainly well aware of the dangers, and after being trumpeted as a major talent at a ridiculously early stage of his career he is no stranger to expectations that border on overwhelming.

"I came through the 20s with a lot being said about me and for a while there I didn't play good at all," he says.

"That was a valuable lesson and I don't want to have to go through that again. I need to stay grounded, stay level-headed and just work hard. This has been a dream of mine since I was really young and I am not going to let people talking me up get in the way of me going forward."

Having flirted with being a posterchild for players who never quite live up to the hype, Locke has emerged from his swoon. A transition to his favoured fullback position was the catalyst, but Locke looks fitter, stronger, faster and, crucially, more confident than ever before. Bottom line, he appears to have grown up.

"I don't bring any of my problems to rugby league, to work," he says. "I just work hard off the field, do extras behind the scenes, work towards being the best I can, I guess. We have been given the opportunity to play NRL and it is a dream for all of us really. I am certainly enjoying it."

The Warriors are confident they have got the timing of Johnson's elevation right. His freakish touch rugby-style try against the Broncos will have provided a timely boost ahead of the big games to come, coach Ivan Cleary says.

"He's been doing that for a few years but to do it at that level in that sort of game is only going to give him confidence. He's still got to go through that development stage of being more heavily marked and all that, but he is pretty smart, he picks things up pretty quickly and that is all part of the journey."

For all his ability, Johnson is far from the complete package. He doesn't yet dominate games, and can drift out of them altogether. "If you compare Shaun to some of the top NRL halfbacks he doesn't touch the ball nearly as much as they would," Cleary said. "We're not asking him to play like that, we are just asking him to keep improving as he goes.

"But he is actually further ahead than I thought he'd be. The development this year has been quite rapid."

The air of excitement that surrounds a crop of emerging young stars that also includes Elijah Taylor, Pita Godinet and Glen Fisiiahi isn't limited to the club's fan-base.

"We love it," Johnson admits. "We are fresh and I guess we are raw. To come to a spot where we are a good chance of being involved in the finals, there is a good feeling around. The experienced guys are smiling too, it is not just us, it is the whole club."


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