Golden Boot winner Jonathan Thurston tells Rugby League World editor Gareth Walker what it’s like to join Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer in an exclusive club
When you ask Johnathan Thurston about his playing success, he is quick to highlight the talents around him. The brilliant Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis are among those who have spent an entire representative career together. But would any of them have looked as good without the contributions of a scrum-capped halfback guiding them around the field?
Thurston’s influence on every team that he plays for is immense. Despite not having the pace of an Alex Murphy, and being repeated told he was too small as a youngster, he has developed into the most successful halfback of his era. He has been an ever present as Queensland have compiled their remarkable eight wins in a row sequence, guided the Cowboys to their only Grand Final and helped steer Australia to World Cup and Four Nations triumphs.
By his own admission, he made a somewhat slow start to 2013, as North Queensland struggled early on. But after being galvanised by his involvement in yet another Origin win, he inspired a late season Cowboys charge that saw them make the play-offs.
They were desperately unlucky to exit those at the first hurdle, falling to a controversial win against Cronulla in Sydney in which the Sharks scored one try on the seventh tackle.
But while proving heartbreaking for the Cowboys faithful, what that did do was afford Thurston a crucial rest before the start of the World Cup. And after a sluggish team start against galvanised England in Cardiff, he stepped up to play a typically crucial role in the key periods of the game, steering the Kangaroos to what proved a vital 28-20 win.
By the time the final came round, Australia and Thurston were in full flow. He was simply outstanding against an out-gunned New Zealand at Old Trafford, collecting the official man of the match award to help seal his Golden Boot triumph.
“The World Cup was definitely a highlight,” Thurston told Rugby League World from his North Queensland home.
“It was a long campaign for us, and we set out a goal at the start to win it back. To have achieved that was very satisfying.
“It’s very easy to play in that side when you’re surrounded by the likes of Smithy (Cameron Smith), Bill (Billy Slater), Cooper (Cronk), Paul Gallen, GI (Greg Inglis) and the likes.
“It’s always a huge honour and a privilege to pull on the green and gold jersey. When you’re surrounded by players of this calibre, it makes it even better. When they retire they are going to go down as greats of the game, and it’s just really humbling to play alongside them. It certainly makes my job very easy.
“The World Cup was a great campaign for us and awesome to win it.”
Thurston has particularly fond memories of the Old Trafford final.
“It was a day that I’ll never forget,” he confirmed. “When we first ran out to do our warm-up we were getting booed, and that was all part of the atmosphere.
“Then when we walked back out from the sheds for the start of the game and the national anthems, I said to Daly Cherry-Evans who was next to me ‘Have a look at this stadium – it’s packed’.
“It was like nothing else, and for that first set of six I’ve never seen anything like it. Old Trafford is one of the greatest sporting fields in the world, and it was just great to be out there.”
Such a fairytale ending looking unlikely midway through 2013. The Cowboys recorded just four wins from their opening 13 NRL matches, including five straight defeats – a run that ultimately cost coach Neil Henry his job.
But Henry stayed in situ until the end of the campaign, and with Thurston getting back to his best, six consecutive wins at the end of the season saw them sneak into eighth spot, before that controversial play-offs exit to the Sharks.
“I thought I had a pretty slow start to the year club wise,” Thurston admitted. “I started to peak around Origin time, and at the back end of the season with the Cowboys my club form started to pick up.
“We lost in the first week of the finals, and that gave me an opportunity to rest the body and freshen up, and I was pumped by the time we played that first game against England in Cardiff. Then I was happy with the way I played throughout the World Cup.”
Origin was another major 2013 highlight for the playmaker. In keeping with the rest of the year, it didn’t start in the perfect manner, as the long-suffering Blues recorded an opening 14-6 win in Sydney. Questions were immediately raised over whether the Maroons were finally ready to surrender their crown, but they levelled the series with a thumping 26-6 win in Brisbane.
Three weeks later, with Thurston scoring the game’s opening try in the tenth minute, Queensland made history again, winning 12-10 in Sydney.
“To win eight series in a row is such a great feat,” Thurston said. “It was very hard to win this time, certainly after our first game. We made it tough for ourselves, but it was great that we could wrap the series up.
“It was the same situation as the national side for me – when you’re playing with guys like that it makes it very easy. I’ve been very blessed to be able to play inside some guys that will be greats of the game.”
Despite his own humility, Thurston himself is destined to be listed among those. When informed that he was following in Johns and Lockyer’s footsteps, his reaction was one of initial disbelief.
“That’s actually just blown me away to tell you the truth,” he said. “It’s very humbling to have my name mentioned alongside those two. When I made my Australian debut on the bench, Joey and Locky were the halves.
“I got to play a lot of footy alongside Locky and learnt so much, and to have my name standing alongside those two means a lot.”
Thurston’s name sits comfortably alongside those of Johns and Lockyer in the Golden Boot record books – and you get the impression he hasn’t finished yet.
First published in Rugby League World, Issue 394 cover dated Feb 2014. Click here to get the whole magazine online now