Sport is full of ironies.
That Johnathan Thurston, the Kangaroos’ greatest-ever point-scorer, played off the bench in Andrew Johns’ last game in an Australian jersey is one of those moments. It was 2006, and a ‘Joey’ masterclass inspired the green-and-golds to a 50-12 thrashing of a Kiwi team who were fresh off a Tri-Nations final victory.
Thurston, who has three Golden Boot awards, proceeded to play halfback alongside Darren Lockyer for the next five years. He continued to develop his kicking and passing game, watching how Lockyer’s vision translated to good field position, crucial tries or creating space.
It was Thurston who threw a dummy before putting Lockyer away to win the Tri-Nations final of 2006, when it was deep into golden point extra-time. For 80minutes, the Kiwis and Kangaroos couldn’t be separated. Thurston broke the deadlock in just his fifth Test on the biggest stage.
He thrives on pressure moments.
In 2011, the last year of Lockyer’s professional career, Thurston stepped up and seized the big moments for Australia, who won every game in the Four Nations that season. Upon Lockyer’s retirement, Thurston moved on to his next conquest: mastering the five-eighth role as the Kangaroos’ senior playmaker, with Cooper Cronk coming into the halves.
For the next 16 Tests, Thurston only lost one match – against the Kiwis in the 2015 Anzac Test. This supreme reign of success included the Australians’ dominant World Cup victory of 2013, where Thurston played arguably the most complete football of his international career.
Like Lockyer, who played fullback and five-eighth for Australia, Thurston was able to play at the highest level in two different positions – and thrive at the same time.
Thurston is the most prolific goal-kicker and points-scorer in Australian Test history. His 165 goals stand tall – the next best is Mick Cronin with 140. Thurston’s points’ haul of 382 is also a record by some margin, with Cronin (310), Mal Meninga (288) and Andrew Johns (226) well behind.
Champion goal-kicker Daryl Halligan told Phil Gould in the Sydney Morning Herald he rated Thurston as the mentally toughest kicker he had ever seen. Johns, Matthew Ridge, Hazem El Masri, Craig Fitzgibbon – we’ve had some wonderful goal kickers in recent times – but Halligan still ranked Thurston at the top thanks to his powers of concentration.
And as a leader and a person?
Thurston’s transformation into a respected figure on and off the field fits the Kangaroo’s R.I.S.E ethos perfectly. He is highly competitive too, with a desire to perform at his highest level every time. His 92 percent success rate across more than a decade at Test level is a testament to that.
I’ll give you this. Thurston made the Australian team more competitive, more enhanced and more professional during his tenure. His sensational goal-kicking, playmaking vision and ability to play two positions at the highest level elevate his status even more.
His longevity – playing 38 Tests to sit 10th on the appearances list for Australia – must not be discounted. So where does Johnathan Thurston, in the wake of his season- and rep career-ending injury – rate in the list of all-time great Kangaroos?
He’s got to be in the top five of all time. Some, like Johns, had more natural talent. But if you base the criteria on the consistency of performance, contribution to the team performance and his off-field leadership, he sits right up there with Clive Churchill, Graeme Langlands, Wally Lewis and Lockyer.
Well done, JT.
“A great way to finish your representative career”: @Kangaroos coach Meninga pays tribute to Thurston.
— RLWC2017 (@RLWC2017) June 23, 2017