Will Shaun Johnson go too?Save
By Dale Budge
With the news out of Australia that Kieran Foran has signed with the Bulldogs for 2018 and beyond the Warriors must now turn their attention to free agent halfback Shaun Johnson.
They need to do whatever it takes to keep Johnson short of making him the highest paid player in the game. They will need to beat any other offer he might have and hope that he wants to stay.
Johnson has basically been the club's franchise player from the moment he made his long-heralded debut in 2011. A prodigious talent as an Under 20s player, Johnson was earmarked for super stardom before he'd played first grade thanks to massive plaudits from the likes of Andrew Johns and Peter Sterling.
He's never tested free agency until now - the most important contract he will ever sign. At 26 Johnson is hitting his prime and will be motivated by two key things - a significant contract that sets him up for life and also the opportunity to win.
With Foran and a number of other players off-contract the Warriors certainly have the cap space to offer him the kind of money needed. The question will be around whether he thinks he can win in Auckland.
His options are not as vast as some might think. The Bulldogs will struggle to fit him into their roster, even taking into account offloading some excess salaries, now that Foran and Aaron Woods have agreed to join. The Roosters likewise would most likely be out of the running having signed fullback James Tedesco. The Broncos are already out having last week picked up Jack Bird.
Johnson could link up with former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary at the Tigers while Newcastle certainly has plenty of money to throw his way. The Warriors are likely to be able to match whatever those clubs throw at him and surely neither are in a better position to win now than the Warriors.
Melbourne is a definite possibility for Johnson. The Storm have reigning Dally M Medal winner Cooper Cronk moving on at the end of the season and will be cashed up for the first time in over a decade. Johnson could certainly tick a couple of boxes in Victoria. He would however be largely out of the limelight in a city that barely knows about rugby league and his earning power away from the game will be limited - something he's able to do in Auckland.
The Dragons, Sharks and Rabbitohs remain possibilities as well. The Sharks being the most likely to challenge for a premiership out of the three and they have a bit of money to spend with Bird leaving.
The Warriors also now need to turn their attentions to the other holes in their roster. They clearly need go-forward up front and could do with an upgrade out wide as well, though they are hamstrung by Manu Vatuvei's guaranteed deal until the end of 2018. Kiwi second rower Tohu Harris replacing Ryan Hoffman will give the back row better balance but he won't have a huge impact on the go-forward. That needs to come from signing new players, especially if Ben Matulino moves to the Tigers as expected.
They also need to find at least one half, assuming they get a deal done with Johnson, and must decide on whether to go cheap and develop youngster Ata Hingano (who is also off-contract at present) or make a play for one of the remaining free agent halves. Gareth Widdop will cost plenty and is not the same calibre as Foran despite his current hot form.
The Dragons and Storm appear to be focused on getting his signature. Josh Reynolds and/or Moses Mbye could be looking for a new club with the Bulldogs acquiring Foran but both players have been criticized for their lack of attacking structure. Dropping down a tier or two the Warriors could see someone like Tyrone Roberts as a possibility. The former Knight is looking for a new deal and is stuck behind Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey at the Titans. They could also look at a young player from across the Tasman - someone like Drew Hutchison or Lachlan Croker, who have stood out in the Under 20s but have yet to really crack first grade. That kind of move has worked extremely well for the Titans.
The Warriors have been holding off making calls on other areas as they focus on the retention of Johnson and Foran. With Foran now off the table they need to get moving if they want to avoid going backwards next season.