JOHNATHAN Thurston laughed when it was suggested to him round three was not the time for laps of honour.
On the day that his Queensland and Australian halves foil, Darren Lockyer, announced he would retire at the end of the year, Thurston was in the middle of Dairy Farmers Stadium saluting fans and beaming.
His North Queensland side had just shocked Melbourne 34-6 in Monday Night Football. Team-mate Tariq Sims had been so excited at the result that he dropped the F-bomb on Triple M. But, as we said ... round three.
“It’s been a lean couple of years,” Thurston explained amid the drizzling rain. “Our fans show up week after week and it’s good to put a smile on their faces.”
The fact is, not even the Cowboys could probably believe the reversal of their fortunes since the 34-22 loss to Newcastle on the same patch of grass nine days previous. That they could completely blitz a team that itself had put 40 points past Gold Coast on that same evening a week ago beggared the belief of even these supremely self-confident super athletes.
There aren’t any stats to say this is a new phenomenon but check out the events of round three: just surviving an NRL game unscathed is a source of relief. The competition has become so even, so fickle, that winning just one game is now bona fide cause for celebration.
“Every win you get in this competition, you’ve got to earn and it’s a pretty big deal,” said Warriors coach Ivan Cleary after a 25-12 loss to St George Illawarra at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday. “We haven’t got one yet.”
The results are there for everyone to see: wooden spoon favourites Cronulla lapping Penrith 44-12 at Centrebet Stadium on Saturday. South Sydney break through for their first win, 32-18 over Parramatta at ANZ Stadium on Friday. Grand finalists Sydney Roosters toppled again, 24-20 by Canterbury, at ANZ on Sunday.
“We’ve seen a lot of it in the competition so far,” said Cowboys coach Neil Henry. “We’ve seen teams that have performed poorly and turned around and won the next week. The sides that will start pushing towards that top four and top eight will be the sides that can be consistent.
“We can’t say we are at the moment – because we haven’t been.”
For the Sharks and Dragons, success came by rather unexpected means – free-flowing, even daring attack from sides not known for it at all. “I don’t know where that came from, to be honest,” said Cronulla captain Paul Gallen. “We trained hard in the pre-season to be real simple and we were throwing balls around like the Wests Tigers.”
Dragons coach Wayne Bennett added: “We were in the same boat – but we were playing harder that we did (against the Sharks) on Monday night. That’s the reward you get. If you’re running hard, if you’re running with a bit of support, opportunities present themselves.”
It was a weekend of upsets, surprising tactics – and apologies. Dragons back rower Ben Creagh suffered a badly jarred neck in the opening minutes at Mt Smart – and then apologised for holding up the game. “He’s the nicest bloke in the world,” said Bennett, “he also apologised for having to leave the game (in the second half).”
Roosters coach Brian Smith apologised for an interchange stuff up which may have cost his side victory. “Somewhere between unforgiveable and very dumb,” he said.
And it was a weekend of injuries – truckloads of them. Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney estimates 41 players with a collective value of almost $10 million have already been injured this season. The M*A*S*H Unit cliché even got its first airing of the season when battered Newcastle crashed 26-12 to Manly at Brookvale Oval on Sunday.
And Wests Tigers had to call out for Hawkeye and Frank Burns themselves with serious injuries to Lote Tuiqiri and Chris Lawrence in a 34-24 win over Canberra at Campbelltown Stadium on Saturday night.
If you go to work not knowing whether you will finish the day with a broken leg, where victory is as ephemeral as the passing of a few days, and the way you play this week could bear absolutely no relationship to last week or next week, then every game is a grand final.
And every grand final deserves a lap of honour.