Stand the defence up and “Joey” would kick behind them; stand back and he would kick short.
Like Don Bradman, all this skill was honed in backyard games. “Andrew and Matthew destroyed all my shrubs, broke the fibro wall of the garage and up-ended their trampoline, using it as a target for kicking practice,” his mother, Gayle, once told me of what would become perhaps the most creative brother act since the Ringlings.
Johns’s superior skill made him the best player of his generation and his all-round game renders him the sui generis of the code – one of a kind, even amongst the Immortals he will almost certainly join.
Unlike John Raper, who wasn’t expected to kick, or Reg Gasnier, who was not required to make 30 tackles, or Clive Churchill, who wasn’t asked to gain meterage from dummy half, the demands of the modern game meant Johns had to be both versatile and have a high work rate.
On the eve of his recall to the NSW State of Origin team in 2005, he was the only player in the NRL who regularly received a tick in all 40 categories of the matrix of skills coaches observe.
But his versatility cost him personal honours.
His recall Origin game in 2005 – when he rescued NSW – was only his fifth as an 80-minute halfback.
Representative coaches, recognising Joey’s ability as a human Scrabble blank, played him hooker, knowing he could defend like a forward.
Injuries also cost him Test matches, the statistic that usually embroiders the legends.
Of the 35 Tests for which he was eligible until his international retirement, he played in only 18.
He was cursed by their timing: most of his injuries were late season, just before the majority of Tests are played.
“In the late 1990s I had groin operations, then in 2002, 2003, 2004 I had back, neck and knee injuries,” Johns once told me.
“Those injuries robbed me of a few Tests and it’s something I find disappointing.”
But the fact that he carried more injuries than the medicart reflects his huge commitment to his club, the Knights.
From the time he became a regular first-grader with Newcastle in 1994, until his last Origin match, he played in 75 per cent of the Knights’ matches.
We forget his great durability, because recently he has seemed to have a hospital bracelet permanently fixed to his wrist.
When he played a rare bad game, his head was down, his eyes refused to make contact and he wore the uncomfortable look of a man fighting an infection that wouldn’t go away.
After Newcastle’s embarrassing loss to Canberra just under two weeks ago, he asked the trainers whether he looked a goose. Aware that he no longer had a physical presence – the ability to put on a big hit or break the line – he retired.
Johns was the last of the larrikins. He came to grade in an era of part-time football and leaves it with everyone full-time.
There was always something irrepressible and irresistible about Joey. Equal parts self-deprecating and devilish, he was a throwback to an era when we didn’t care if our heroes got into a punch-up in the pub or sank 10 schooners, because they turned up to work at the brickyards on Mondays and gave 100 per cent on Saturdays.
I asked him once whether the demands of the modern game bleached out all the joy and he said: “Playing the game is never a chore. Putting up with all the bullshit is a chore.”
When I noted that he generated the “bullshit” – the publicity about betting sprees, fist fights with team-mates, arguments with coaches – a wide and wicked grin appeared on his face.
“You know those things will draw attention to you,” he said.
“It’s just that sometimes you forget.”
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.