Malcolm Andrews appraises the winner of the 2011 Golden Boot, Johnathan Thurston.
Have you ever wondered about what it takes to be a talent scout for an NRL or Super League club? They are the highly-paid officials who scour the Australian countryside and the British amateur competitions for the stars of tomorrow. And schoolboys matches are all grist for the mill.
Right now one can only wonder at the judgment of some of these soothsayers.
Let’s backtrack to 2001. For the previous three years player manager Sam Ayoub had been trying to interest the officials of each and every NRL club in a teenager he had on his books. Johnathan Thurston was a scrawny kid who had been playing for the All Whites club in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane.
But not one of the 16 NRL sides were interested. There were a multitude of excuses. Too small. Looks like he’d break in half the first time one of the battle-hardened opposition forwards hits him. No defence, can’t tackle. Too slow. All that and more.
“No one wanted anything to do with him,”Ayoub explained. “They wouldn’t even take him for free.” But eventually Ayoub persuaded a semi-reluctant Canterbury Bulldogs to sign him. They would pay for his accommodation. But there would be no match payments.
Ayoub chose the Bulldogs because he lived in the area and he had promised Thurston’s mother he would keep a close eye on the kid. That’s also why he got Canterbury captain Steve Price to take him in as boarder in his home.
In the words of the cliché, the rest is history. How all those club officials – especially the talent scouts – would love have to have their time over again as Thurston is honoured with the Golden Boot as the finest player in the world during 2011. And not forgetting all those awards he has collected in the intervening years. Two Dally M Medals (as the NRL Player of the Year in 2005 and 2007), the Wally Lewis Medal as State of Origin Man of the Series in 2005, and the World XIII’s Scrum Half of the Year in 2007 and 2008.
Is it any coincidence that Queensland have won a record six straight Origin series with Thurston at the helm, with him taking out three Man of the Match awards? And what about how the North Queensland Cowboys often struggle when he is not there to direct them around the pitch?
While all eyes were on his ‘partner in crime’ Darren Lockyer, during the recent Gillette Four Nations Tournament – Lockyer’s swansong in Rugby League – it was Thurston’s individual brilliance that ensured his success in the Golden Boot voting.
He set up two tries, and scored another, in the Australians opening victory over New Zealand. At Wembley against England he was a stand-out performer in attack and, as a bonus, converted each of Australia’s six tries, several of them from wide out. Then at Wrexham he helped put the Welsh to the sword, once again regularly setting up tries and booting eight goals from nine attempts.
Finally there was his brilliant, if controversial, Man of the Match display in the final against England. What we didn’t know, as Thurston carved up the opposition, was that he was virtually playing on one leg, thanks to a thigh injury sustained in a training run two days earlier. But he set up a couple of tries, scored one himself in which he handled the ball three times and kicked five from five. His defence was impeccable except for the occasion on which he gave away that penalty try.
Before the final former GB scrum half Shaun Edwards had told The Guardian: “His kicking is a bonus for Australia. It’s unusual for a scrum half to be such a great goal-kicker. But, even without that, he’s one of the best pivots in the world, in either [rugby] code. He’s also got that little bit of edge about him, which is something all the great half-backs tend to have.”
That little bit of edge? That would have to be the understatement of the decade!
(Article first published in Rugby League World, Issue 369 cover dated January 2012)