The changing face of Johnathan Thurston, an NRL legend.
The changing face of Johnathan Thurston, an NRL legend.

Johns: Was JT better than Joey?

AT the start of March 2013, days before the season's opening round, I wrote something in this newspaper that prompted a phone call from my mother and father. "Matt, how could you? What are you thinking?"

The criticism of my opinion extended beyond my parents. People in rugby league said I'd "lost the plot". I was "trying to make a headline". I was "jealous".

After watching the Indigenous All Stars game the previous month, I'd written "that within two years Johnathan Thurston will surpass Andrew Johns as the greatest rugby league halfback the game had ever seen".

Some assumed I was simply trying to stir Andrew up.

OK, maybe a very small part of me was trying to do that. Ever since we were kids, I've viewed winding Joey up as a sport of sorts.

I loathe board games, but I'd engage in Trivial Pursuit, solely for the pleasure of giving it to Andrew when he got a question wrong, and watching him hurl the board across the living room before disappearing into his bedroom and turning Metallica on at full volume.

But no, in this case my opinion was purely based upon what I'd seen during that All Stars game.

The Cowboys’ GF win must be his greatest moment. (Brett Costello)
The Cowboys’ GF win must be his greatest moment. (Brett Costello)

 

I've watched Thurston from afar and witnessed him grow in every aspect of his life.

I remember watching him for the first time in the early 2000s, playing for the Dogs. The biggest part of him was his ears.

He was like a young boy playing against men, but serving as an inspiration to all young footballers who are disadvantaged by being late physical developers, he hung tough and eventually his frame and physicality increased.

The JT we see today is starkly different to the drover's dog build back around the days of debut.

Thurston started slowly at Canterbury. (Peter Bull)
Thurston started slowly at Canterbury. (Peter Bull)

But like his physical presence, his football also expanded. In the days of the Dogs, JT was like a rabbit searching for a hole in a fence: he ducked, he darted, he was essentially a runner of the football.

As another lesson to young footballers, he's built his game, brick by brick.

I remember the early days of his Cowboys career with Matty Bowen - what a combination.

But in those days, the Cowboys attack rarely ventured outside the middle of the football field.

There were no fancy trick shots, no brilliant sleight of hand. Thurston and Bowen simply terrorised the opposition's middle defenders with their running, their footwork and their understanding.

But bit by bit, Thurston's game would evolve. He started to manage contests, there was more thought to his playmaking.

Thurston and Bowen took the Cowboys to a grand final.
Thurston and Bowen took the Cowboys to a grand final.

You see, the more strings there are to a ballplayer's bow, the longer it takes them to master their talent.

Which brings me to that Indigenous All Stars performance in 2013. I saw a playmaker about to enter the peak of their career.

The attacking shapes he ran were more complex, but he was perfectly comfortable in his execution.

He had option runners all around him, but never once was he rushed or crowded.

As history will show, what came next for Thurston was pure dominance at every level. A long, sustained run of form that combined brilliance and competitiveness like we've rarely seen.

So was my predication right? Who's better, JT or Joey?

Was the 2013 Indigenous All Stars JT’s peak? (Jono Searle)
Was the 2013 Indigenous All Stars JT’s peak? (Jono Searle)

That debate will always rage and there's no right or wrong. Both are champions. I'm just relieved he justified my statement.

However, his physical stature and his football are dwarfed by the development of Johnathan Thurston the human being.

JT has gone from "the cheeky ratbag" to being one of the greatest role models our sport has seen.

On Friday, Thurston plays for the final time in his beloved Townsville. Both the man and the city have been good for one another. Enjoy.

 

 

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