North Queensland Cowboys halfback and co-captain Johnathan Thurston ticks off another milestone on Saturday night against the Warriors, making his 250th NRL appearance. The mercurial playmaker, who turns 32 on Anzac Day, has been in near career-best form in recent weeks, collecting three straight man-of-the-match awards in spearheading the Cowboys’ revival after a dismal start to their 2015 campaign.
While Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith, in particular, have their supporters, it’s difficult to argue against Thurston’s mantle as the most influential player in the premiership. He’s never played better, and in a hallmark of the all-time greats, he can’t be stopped – it’s more about damage control.
The Queensland and Australian linchpin cemented his status as one of the greatest players of the modern era long ago; the debate now is whether he is the best halfback – and, indeed, player – the code has ever seen.
A 19-year-old debutant with the Bulldogs in 2002, Thurston won a premiership two years later in the blue and white jumper. But he climbed to superstardom the hard way, dismissed by several clubs on account of being ‘too small’ – despite predecessors like Allan Langer and Geoff Toovey consistenly proving that notion a fallacy.
He was signed to the Bulldogs on a minimal contract and eventually signed with the Cowboys in 2005 with no way past Brent Sherwin and Braith Anasta for a permanent first grade spot. ‘JT’ won the Dally M Medal in his first season in Townsville and steered the Cowboys to a maiden Grand Final, where they went down 30-16 to Wests Tigers.
Since then, Thurston has crafted one of the most glittering, decorated and entertaining careers in the history of the game.
Two more Dally M Medals (in 2007 and ’14) have followed, along with a record 30 consecutive Origin appearances for the Maroons and 31 Tests for the Kangaroos. Thurston’s 220 appearances for North Queensland are second only to former partner-in-crime Matt Bowen. A peerless ball-player and game-breaker, ace goalkicker Thurston has broken records for most points in Origin (174) and Test (328) football, while his 1,592 points for the Cowboys is a club record.
His swag of individual honours also includes Golden Boot success in 2011 and ’13, and the Wally Lewis Medal in 2009, while he recorded further top-five Dally M finishes in 2006, 2009 and 2011-13.
But mere numbers and awards cannot tell the story of JT’s influence or his dominance at club and representative level.
When the dust settles on his career in a couple of years’ time, the features of his game that will burn brightest are his tenacity, durability and consistency; his unparalleled involvement and desire to be around the ball; his commitment and disdain for self-preservation; his passion, resilience and penchant for wearing his heart of his sleeve; his ability to make players around him better; and, of course, his ability to turn a match on his own – and eventually win it with a brilliant pass, kick or run.
Thurston is naturally the most recent name to be added to the pantheon of Rugby League’s halfback greats, which includes hallowed figures Arthur ‘Pony’ Halloway, Chris McKivat, Duncan Thompson, Keith Holman, Billy Smith, Tom Raudonikis, Peter Sterling, Langer and – the player who he is relentlessly compared to – Andrew Johns.
The ‘Joey’ v ‘JT’ debate has gathered momentum over recent seasons, and the similarities are undeniable.
All arguments regarding who was the better player are ultimately arbitrary, but there now seems little doubt Thurston will, one day, join Johns as an Immortal. When the ninth Immortal is selected, Thurston will be going up against the likes of his current Queensland coach Mal Meninga and his long-time representative halves partner Darren Lockyer – but Thurston’s case is equally compelling.
The only honour missing from Thurston’s resumé is leading his club to a premiership. He has come desperately close over the last few seasons – none more so than in 2014, when he produced one of the great individual finals performances in a heartbreaking 31-30 defeat to the Sydney Roosters two games short of the decider. It underlined his rare ability to be the best player on the field in a losing side, a trait shared by Johns.
More than for the luckless Cowboys, sympathetic sentiment throughout the game was directed towards JT – most felt he deserves to take his side to a Grand Final triumph.
Will this be the year the Cowboys break the duck and Thurston holds the NRL trophy aloft? On current form, an unprecedented fourth Dally M Medal appears a formality, while only the brave or cynical would declare the ultimate prize beyond JT and co. in 2015.