Andrew Webster may be forced to redeploy Dylan Walker in the halves after the Warriors were rocked as star playmaker Shaun Johnson was ruled out of the club’s first NRL finals game since 2018.
Johnson, who Webster described as the “best player in the comp this year”, will miss Saturday’s qualifying final against Penrith with a calf complaint he picked up at training on Wednesday.
The 32-year-old is the runaway favourite for the Dally M Medal and has been in scintillating form during the Warriors’ revival under Webster.
But the rookie coach is now set to be without Johnson and first-choice five-eighth Luke Metcalf (hamstring) for the biggest game of the club’s season.
“We’ve got players who can step in. We’ve done it all year, we’ve filled a role, and that’s why we’re here,” Johnson said after the Warriors touched down in Sydney on Thursday.
“I just think our team has never been about one person. It’s no different now. We’ll be right.”
The Warriors hope Johnson will be fit for “their next game”, but the maverick No.7 gave his teammates an extra bit of motivation to win without him.
“Hopefully we don’t have to play next week,” Johnson quipped.
A victory over minor premiers Penrith - which now seems even more unlikely given Johnson’s absence - would guarantee the Warriors an extra week of rest before a home preliminary final in Auckland in a fortnight's time.
If they fall to the Panthers on Saturday, the Warriors will play the winner of Sunday’s Newcastle-Canberra elimination final back in New Zealand in a sudden-death encounter.
Webster will now likely move Walker from the bench to partner five-eighth Te Maire Martin.
Walker has played in the halves for the Warriors this year but shifting him into the spine would remove his ability to impact the game from the interchange bench which he has done to great effect this year.
Rookie fullback Taine Tuaupiki and hooker Freddy Lussick are in the Warriors’ extended squad.
“If it was a broken hand you could try and play with it because it wouldn’t get any worse,” Webster said.
“But a soft-tissue injury you need to make sure you’re careful.. and we can’t risk it.”
Johnson left Sydney airport’s international terminal with a large bandage across his left calf.
“He’s the best player in the comp this year, we’re going to miss him, but we’ve got so many players who can stand up, and we’ve done it all year," Webster said.
“So many players haven’t been available for selection and we’ve still found a way to win.
“Hopefully it’s a long finals series, and we’re confident we can still win on Saturday.”