Sharks give Johnson NRL freedom to excel

Shaun Johnson is in close to the best form of his NRL career and Cronulla coach John Morris doesn't want him to change his game with Chad Townsend out injured.

SHAUN JOHNSON.
SHAUN JOHNSON. Picture: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Cronulla want Shaun Johnson to keep his free-flowing game the same even without Chad Townsend as the Sharks bid to maintain their best attacking run in 18 years.

The Sharks' attack has been rampant, with their 25 points per game for this NRL season the second best in the club's 53-year history.

But with Townsend out for the next month Cronulla faces its sternest test on Friday night, with centres Josh Dugan and Jesse Ramien both also ruled out on match eve with hamstring issues.

Townsend has typically been the organiser this year, allowing Johnson to play his best football in recent weeks.

Connor Tracey will take the No.7 spot and start in the halves for just the third time in his career but coach John Morris does not want Johnson varying his approach.

"We want to keep Shaun's game relatively the same, just keep playing to his strengths," Morris said.

"I still want him to have the freedom to play what he sees, but I think he has done a really good job of managing our team this year.

"He is managing our kicking game well. He is setting up tries but his kicking is also building a lot of pressure with repeat sets.

"Shaun will definitely need to step up with the absence of Chad and that experience, but he will have no dramas doing that."

Like the Sharks' attack, Johnson is experiencing one of the most prolonged purple patches of his career.

The 29-year-old revealed this week he has put a heavy focus on the mental side of his game over the summer, knowing his best is too far away from his worst.

And the results are showing.

The Sharks No.6 has set up 14 tries in his past eight games, while his kicking close to the line is his most notable improvement - having forced the most dropouts in the NRL.

"He's in a real good space," Morris said.

"And he's just confident, and that's the thing with Shaun Johnson, once he is confident he is a pretty dangerous player."

Tracey's first start in the halves at Cronulla came after he was an Australian Schoolboys representative as a Sharks junior before leaving for Souths in 2016.

The 24-year-old played two games at five-eighth during last year's State of Origin period for the Rabbitohs, before returning to Cronulla.

Meanwhile the Sharks will also debut Jackson Ferris in the centres, with Siosifa Talakai on the other side to deal with the loss of Ramien and Dugan.