North Queensland coach Neil Henry has conceded that the Cowboys are relying on loyalty and the lure of ‘unfinished business’ in their quest to re-sign star playmaker Johnathan Thurston beyond 2013.
The race for Thurston’s signature has heated up in recent weeks with Penrith putting in a huge $5.2 million bid in the wake of centre Michael Jennings’ shock move to Sydney Roosters over the summer.
The size of the offer, which would easily make Thurston the highest paid player in the game at around $1.3 million per season, has stunned Cowboys officials who are unable to match the Panthers’ astronomical figures.
But Henry said he was still confident that the Queensland and Australian five-eighth would opt to stay put next season.
“It’s obviously a massive offer from Penrith and they’ve been making things fairly attractive to him but we’re quietly confident that we’ll get it done,” Henry told NRL.com.
“I think we’ve got something quite special up here with this playing group and I think there is a sense of… they’re all mates and they’ve been together a long time. These guys are all JT’s mates, he is pretty settled up here and he has played his best football here so we’re pretty confident we can get him.”
Asked if the Cowboys were relying on loyalty to stave off Penrith’s challenge, Henry replied “We are. I think a lot of clubs do. Players get comfortable where they are and he has certainly got the challenge of winning a premiership with us as something he wants to do. He still has some good footy ahead of him. I think his connection to north Queensland is very strong and I think that will be a real key factor in whether he stays or not.
“We’re getting closer with it but he has got a few things to consider. JT has indicated that he wants some closure. He doesn’t want it dragging on throughout the season. We’d like to have it resolved before kick-off ideally but that’s getting pretty close now so we’ll have to wait and see.”
While Penrith have taken extreme measures to put two forgettable seasons behind them and become an NRL powerhouse once more, the fact that North Queensland have already built a squad capable of giving the competition a shake could also work in the Cowboys’ favour.
Having come close in 2011 and 2012 with consecutive top-eight finishes, Henry believes they are ready to go one step further this time around and pointed to the fact that both Matthew Scott and James Tamou had recently re-signed after also attracting plenty of interest elsewhere as an indication the club was moving in the right direction.
“We were quietly confident of getting the job done with Matty and Jimmy and we did, so hopefully that’s a sign of things to come,” Henry said.
“Look, we’ve made the finals the past two years but we haven’t been in the top four – and it’s been proven that you need to be in the top four. The last seven years the premiers have come from the top two so we need to get up there and aim to be one of those teams to get the job done, but I think we’ve got the squad to do that.”
Ironically, while Thurston’s contract saga has dominated headlines north of the border, he is yet to play a game for the Cowboys in 2013 after injuring his hand in the All Stars game three weeks ago.
His absence and a broken jaw to fellow playmaker Michael Morgan have thrown the side’s preparations into chaos, with Henry admitting he had some decisions to make ahead of their season opener against Canterbury next Saturday night.
“We’ve missed JT’s leadership on the field a little bit in the trials and with Michael Morgan’s injury we’re a little bit skinny around the halves, but the good thing is that it has given Ray Thompson and Robert Lui some game time,” he said.
“They needed that. Ray is coming off the back of a shoulder reconstruction and Rob is coming off the back of a season off. He’s a little bit rusty but there are some real decisions to be made by the coaching staff.
“The start of the year is really important to us and we haven’t often gotten off to a good start so we need to do that. We’re certainly tested straight up against the Bulldogs and then Melbourne at home so we’ve got the grand finalists the first two weeks. We’re also away a lot for those first few games – we’ve got a big road trip to Newcastle and to the Warriors as well. It’s a tough start. Time will tell but if we can get momentum early in the season we come home with seven of our last 10 games at home, so we could have a good run.”