THERE is a misconception that Johnathan Thurston is purely an individual player. But ask him about himself and invariably he will talk about his team instead.
Ask him what a premiership would mean to him personally, and he replies: “It’s important for the club and North Queensland.”
“It’s very important for the club to win their first ever premiership and it would be great for North Queensland. They love their footy up here and you could see the effects it has when you play semi-finals. The community gets behind the team and hopefully we can do that for them.”
Thurston is not claiming that will happen this year, nor is he claiming it can’t. He knows how desperately North Queenslanders want to see their team in the finals – let alone win a premiership – and he knows that this year they have as good a chance as any… maybe even more… to make that happen. But his focus is always short-term. He’s not one for talk of rebuilding phases and long-term plans, he tells us. He wants wins whenever he can get them and knows better than anyone how quickly a win one week can inexplicably transform into a loss the next.
“One week is a long time in footy,” Thurston says. “You can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in just one week.
“We’re just trying to make the most of each year and I always take it a week at a time.”
The Cowboys are long odds in the minds of many to make the top eight this year but with some of the game’s best players and with an off-season recruitment drive that is arguably second only to the Bulldogs, there is a positive vibe around the North Queensland camp.
The club has sought a balance of both rising stars and established first-graders with signings that include: 2010 Toyota Cup Player of the Year Tariq Sims; 2010 Toyota Cup Winger of the Year Kalifa Faifai Loa; Indigenous All Star Ben Jones; highly rated Broncos winger Antonio Winterstein; experienced campaigners Ashton Sims and Gavin Cooper; and premiership winners Dallas Johnson, Glenn Hall, and Brent Tate.
“It’s great for the club to have signed those blokes,” Thurston says. “The calibre of the guys we’ve signed is really high; they’re very professional in everything they do and they’re highly respected amongst rugby league circles and in our team.
“The [senior players] we’ve signed expect nothing but the best on the training paddock and on the field. I don’t think a lot of our boys are used to knowing that and seeing that so it’s been great for the club.”
The shake-up at the Cowboys extended beyond the arrivals as long-time Cowboys Carl Webb, Ty Williams, Luke O’Donnell and Steve Southern, as well as Willie Mason, Anthony Watts, Steve Rapira and John Williams, left the club or retired.
Thurston is quick to pay tribute to the players who have moved on but says the turnaround in personnel has re-energised the entire squad and has created strong competition for positions once again.
“We had a lot of players leave who made a good service to the club. But we’re moving in a different direction now and certainly the club is very happy – and so is the playing group. We’re happy with the changes that have been made and the recruitment that has been made.
“It’s very healthy when you’ve got a full squad to choose from and you’ve got people fighting for spots. It’s a great position to be in. We’re missing Brent Tate and Antonio Winterstein at the moment through injury but once they get back they’ll certainly be right in the mix and playing first grade.
“You always set goals at the start of the year and with the recruitment the club has had, we’re very happy with our playing roster and we just need to turn up each week and do the best we can. Hopefully we get the results and that’s just the simple way we’re looking at it.”
The Cowboys have shown mixed form to start the year. A superb win against the Broncos in Round 1 was followed by a disappointing effort against the Knights last week that no doubt had some Cowboys fans wondering if this season will be any different to the last.
Thurston admits the loss to the Knights was disappointing but says he sees a lot in the players around him – both new and established – to be positive.
“We just didn’t have much ball [against Newcastle]. I think in the first half we made 70-odd more tackles than the Knights and that was the telling point in the end.
“But we’re not panicking. We know we can score points and we know we can defend well. We just need to put an 80-minute performance together and certainly just hold the ball and that’s what’s been our downfall in the first two rounds, turning over cheap possession on early tackles. That’s what’s really hurting us.
“It’s very early on in the year at the moment. It’s about staying calm and talking the boys through it. If there’s panic stations from up above it filters through to the playing group so it’s a matter of only looking ahead one week and training the best we can to get ourselves every opportunity of winning.”
This Saturday night will show where the side is at. As far as Litmus tests go, Thurston says it doesn’t get any better than the game against the Storm. Melbourne are undefeated so far and have shown they can still be a force in the competition despite having lost so much of their squad in the off-season.
History is on the Storm’s side, having won the past seven clashes between the two sides, and the past four in Townsville.
“It’s going to be tough. If we have the same mindset as last week they’ll put 60 points on us. They’ve got so many attacking weapons and they’re a very well-drilled outfit so we’ll have to bring our A-game, that’s for sure.
“We’ll see where we’re at. The first two rounds have been mixed performances but we just need to do our best as a team.”
The true team players of rugby league are often its greatest individuals, and Thurston is proving he is just that.