FIRST AMONG EQUALS
The NRL’S best player has a small frame, a massive engine and an open heart
The camera closes in on Johnathan Thurston’s face. His intense eyes are fixed on the ball in front of him. He can see the imaginary trajectory it will take once he strikes it with his right foot: first curling way out to the right, then dramatically, almost savagely, curving back to the left and between the posts. That’s the plan.
Then he does it. Because he is Johnathan Thurston.
What you don’t see as the cameras sweep back to centrefield is Thurston scanning the crowd. He is looking for a young boy or girl he has never met. He has made hundreds of split-second decisions on the field for his club, the North Queensland Cowboys, Queensland and Australia, but this one goes to character.
Suddenly, he will spot who he’s been looking for. The kid will often be shy and timid and not wearing their team’s latest jersey. The kid doesn’t stand out. Thurston will trot over and give the boy or girl his kicking tee. The kid’s eyes will light up. A Thurston fan for life.
It’s impossible to calculate how many kicking tees Thurston has given away over the past decade. The ballpark figure is 500. That’s a lot of inspiration, right there.
Thurston’s standing as a modern-day great was cemented long ago. He possesses the crisp pass, deft kick, vision, leadership, indefatigability and rampant will to win that set him apart from the rest. What I admire most about Thurston, though, is that he has a small frame, with dodgy shoulders that have required numerous surgeries and reconstructions, yet he will stand in the defensive line knowing the opposition’s biggest player will charge at him all afternoon. He is the first to chase his own kick, trying to pin the fullback on his own line. And he keeps doing it when he knows his side is about to lose.
What I also admire about Thurston is that he almost never became this champion. He was a great player, sure, but slowly sabotaging his talent with undisciplined behaviour away from football. Former NSW coach Phil Gould met with him and delivered a cyclonic spray before composing himself and asking: “How do you want to be remembered? Because it starts right now.”
Subsequently, Thurston became rugby league’s best player. In 2015, he led the Cowboys to their first premiership, landing the field goal in extra-time. At that moment, we all became Johnathan Thurston fans for life.