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Darren Lockyer doesn’t fear many things, but coming up against a team boasting the player he believes is the best halfback in the world? He considers that a daunting prospect.<br><br>This Friday night is the last throw of the dice in 2009 for the Cowboys in the local derby clash against the Broncos.<br><br>Now sitting four points adrift of the top eight, the Cowboys not only have to win every game, but count on other teams losing if they are to steal a spot in the top eight.<br><br>It is an unenviable position to be in at this point of the year, but Johnathan Thurston is one man who can make this mathematical possibility a reality. <br><br>Without Aaron Payne and with serious doubt over fullback Matt Bowen’s future, the Cowboys will be looking to their leader and playmaker more than ever for the impetus to spring an upset over a Broncos side that has suddenly found form in the past two weeks.<br><br>However, in his absence Payne warns not to place all the pressure on Thurston’s troublesome shoulders.<br><br>“With me not being out there I don’t think a great deal changes,” Payne offers. <br><br>“There’s a whole group in our leadership group, we all help each other off the field. <br><br>“To say all the pressure’s on JT is not necessarily right. He naturally assumes a lot of that leadership role – and that’s what he’s good at – but there are guys there who help him out.”<br><br>The battle between the Maroons’ halves has all fans – Queenslanders and Blues alike – salivating. While 24 other players will be on the field, all eyes will be on this mercurial pair. They both have match-winning potential, however Thurston has seven more try assists than Lockyer this season, and five more line-break assists. But the Australian captain does not need statistics to know how damaging the Cowboys’ no.7 can be.<br><br>“We’ve played a fair bit of footy together now… I remember, it doesn’t seem that long ago that we started together,” Lockyer reflects. “He’s a wonderful player and he’s growing into a good leader. He’s mature and we’ve all seen the skill he can provide, and he can play tough when he needs to as well.<br><br>“He just sort of knows what’s important to win football games now, and rolls the sleeves up when he needs to. He’s just competitive.<br><br>“He knows when the game needs a bit of flair and he knows when he needs to be tough.”<br><br>While Lockyer appreciates Thurston’s talent, he can also share the 26-year-old’s frustration at the early season criticism levelled at him and coach Neil Henry after the Cowboys’ slow start to the year. After recapturing classic form throughout the middle part of the season, Thurston has again fluctuated – and sometimes even between halves of contests, as seen in their loss to the Knights last weekend. Thurston was the standout in the first half, while his opposite Jarrod Mullen dominated the second. But Lockyer believes even the best can have dips in performance.<br><br>“I’ve always said it’s hard for players to play at their best for 26 weeks of the year,” he insists. “You’re going to have your off patches and he started the season slow but it was only early and you’ve all seen what he can do, so there was no doubting that.”<br><br>Thurston also did his best to shut out the negativity earlier this year. <br><br>“The coach copped a bit of criticism and all that kind of stuff but we knew it was only a matter of time before our team found some form and everyone’s been working hard at the Cowboys,” Thurston says.<br><br>“I think it’s impossible to play your best every week, you have to find that balance of being consistent every week.”<br><br>It is something the Cowboys have struggled with all year. Just when it looked as though their season was back on track, they would encounter another couple of losses and fall back down the table. Coach Henry has watched Thurston take those losses hardest of all. Other great players like Andrew Johns and Lockyer have that similar trait – a real hatred of losing.<br><br>“I think all the great players, and ‘Joey’ certainly was, they are very harsh markers of their own performance and they are as disappointed as anyone,” Henry explains. <br>“They often take the team result personally because they have such a say in it and if they feel like they haven’t played well and the team’s been beaten well, they’ll take that ownership.<br><br>“I think he does take losses personally… and it’s increasingly difficult the way the game is played nowadays to be a dominant player and the fact the game has got a bit faster this year, defensive lines are moving forward pretty quick.<br>&nbsp;<br>“I just think it’s a difficult position to be consistently dominant in the halves nowadays, and he’s one of the few players who seems to be able to achieve that.”<br>Henry also believes the critics were too quick in their assessment of Thurston this year. As the game’s premier halfback and captain of his club side, Thurston has one of the most arduous schedules of any player in the game.<br><br>However the Cowboys coach is confident that when it counts, like this Friday night, Thurston rarely takes a back seat.<br><br>“He is a genuine big match player. He’s proven it for a few seasons now, he’s got the Dally M, he’s been consistent… you don’t get those awards and those accolades if you can’t string together consecutive games,” Henry says. <br><br>“He had a bit of a slow start to the season. People were questioning what was going on there but he’s had a lot of football. He’s had the World Cup, he had a very long year followed by some surgery and a relatively short preparation leading into a season.”<br><br>There will be no excuses at Dairy Farmers Stadium though, in a game Payne has dubbed the biggest of the year for his side. The injured hooker will enjoy the match from the sideline, as will a huge crowd to see Thurston and Lockyer battle.<br><br>“The fact is that this is our last chance for the season, even though we’re still relying on other teams’ results, it’s the biggest game of the season so far. We have to win it or we’re gone,” Payne says. <br><br>“JT and Darren Lockyer are playing football against each other, and not only that the Cowboys versus Broncos games are always big games anyway. They’re always games that as a player you look forward to play in and I know there will be a massive crowd at Dairy Farmers on Friday night. I’m looking forward to just watching it.”<br><br>The scriptwriters could not have made this one any better. It comes down to a Friday night game against the Cowboys’ traditional rivals to keep some hope for the finals. Thurston will cast off the self doubts and produce his best, representing the desperation of a true leader trying to keep his team’s season alive.
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