Craig Bellamy may be pushing for Cooper Cronk’s inclusion in the Australian Test side but North Queensland coach Neil Henry believes a rejuvenated Johnathan Thurston is a must when the Aussies take on New Zealand on the Gold Coast next Friday night.

Thurston has struggled with form and injury over the past two seasons and missed last October’s Four Nations tournament – won by the Kiwis – after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Bellamy this week endorsed Cronk to retain his place in the starting side next weekend but with the Cowboys off to a flying start in 2011 and Thurston playing a key role in their success, Henry said there was no doubt his star No.7 was finally back to his best and insisted he should be among the first players picked when Kangaroos selectors convene in Canberra on Sunday.

“I think Johnathan, when you look at his try assists and line-break assists, there is a bit of an X-factor with him,” Henry said. “He can open up defensive lines. He has proven that he can do it again and again in those pressure games, be it playing for his country or playing State of Origin.

“I suppose Cooper has that steady kicking game and is a solid footballer too but I don’t think he has those special plays in him. He does have a very good combination with Cameron Smith and Billy Slater but I think Johnathan is the standout half at the moment and I’d have him in there in front of Cooper.”

While Cronk has impressed for Melbourne during the early rounds, Henry said that the Cowboys’ good form over the opening seven weeks of the season was largely due to Thurston, who enjoyed his first full pre-season in a number of years.

And statistics show just how effective he has been after struggling his way through 2010 with a series of nagging shoulder injuries.

Already in 2011 Thurston has recorded far superior stats than at the same time last year, with more run metres, kick metres, line-breaks, line-break assists, try assists, broken tackles and offloads.

JT in 2010 (through Rnd 7)
Runs: 47 for 344m
Kicks: 52 for 1345m
Line-breaks: 4
Line-break Assists: 7
Tries: 2
Try Assists: 7
Tackle-breaks: 17
Offloads: 5

JT in 2011
Runs: 62 for 509m
Kicks: 64 for 1923m
Line-breaks: 5
Line-break Assists: 16
Tries: 2
Try Assists: 12
Tackle-breaks: 18
Offloads: 8

“Last year he played 17 games – so he missed seven – and of those 17 games he played he would have played most of those under duress,” Henry said.

“He had a couple of shoulder injuries and the nerve damage that he had operated on at the end of the year, so I probably only really had him for about 12 games.

“I think that the squad as a whole is performing better this year and the form of Matty Bowen, if Matty is playing well they complement each other, but Johnathan has been able to start the year with a good, solid pre-season where he hasn’t had representative commitments and that has freshened him up a fair bit.

“He was able to get over his niggling injuries and play with a healthy body which has made a big difference.”

Asked whether selectors had a duty to stay loyal to Cronk, who was among Australia’s best in the Four Nations despite dropping the final to New Zealand, Henry said: “There is no doubt they are both very good players but Johnathan was the incumbent half (before injury) and I think he would have been there last year if it wasn’t for that.

“It’s a selection dilemma that Mal Meninga goes through each year too with Johnathan, Cooper, Darren Lockyer and Scotty Prince.

“They’re neck and neck – but I think Johnathan has played well enough in these early rounds to vindicate his selection.”

The Cowboys have won five of their first seven games and their past three since suffering a shock loss away to Parramatta in Round 4 to sit in fourth spot on the NRL ladder.

However, with tough games coming up against Manly tomorrow night, St George Illawarra and Parramatta again before a bye, Henry said it was still too early to suggest that his new-look squad had turned the corner.

“The next couple of weeks are a real test for us against Manly and then the Dragons at Kogarah so we’ll really see where we’re at in those games,” he said. “We can assess things when we get to the bye after the next three rounds.

“It’s been a positive start though – beating Brisbane in the opening round hasn’t happened for a few years. I suppose the pleasing thing is that we’ve been competitive away from home. We’ve won two games away and dropped the other to Parramatta by two points after leading that game so it’s good that we’re starting to be able to do that.

“We need to be competitive away from Dairy Farmers. If we can do that then hopefully we can figure in the finals. It is early days and we’ve been lucky enough to stay pretty healthy.

“The test will be how we react around our representative players and how many we get in to Origin and the Test team – how we cope with a few injuries when we get them.”

Late NRL news:

•    Brett Stewart’s on-again, off-again comeback mission from a hamstring injury has taken yet another hit with the Manly fullback ruled out for the fifth week in a row ahead of tomorrow’s clash with the Cowboys. Will Hopoate gets one more chance to impress City selectors in the No.1.

•    Broncos captain Darren Lockyer has been cleared to take his place in tonight’s blockbuster against Canterbury despite suffering back spasms during the week.

•    The Gold Coast are sweating on the fitness of Preston Campbell but expect him to make his return from a knee injury on the bench against Sydney Roosters tomorrow night.