FIRST AMONG EQUALS

The NRL’S best player has a small frame, a mas­sive en­gine and an open heart

Men's Health (Australia) - - Inspiration - Jonathan Thurston An­drew Web­ster cov­ers rugby league for Fair­fax Me­dia.

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.

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