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He was charged with protecting Darren Lockyer from the NSW forwards during Queensland’s latest State of Origin triumph – now Sam Thaiday is hoping to do the same for the Broncos as the countdown begins to Lockyer’s NRL farewell.

Revelling in his role as the Brisbane captain’s personal minder, Thaiday told today that any player wanting to test out Lockyer’s ageing body would have to go through him first as they prepare for a tough run home that includes games against fellow premiership aspirants the Warriors, North Queensland and Manly.

“It’s something that I will look to do as much as I can,” Thaiday said ahead of tomorrow night’s clash with the in-form Warriors.

“It’s in the job description I think if you have a read – ‘protect Locky’. I don’t mind that stuff.

“I know that he is a target for a lot of teams in attack – they do like to run at him a lot. It does make my job a little bit more enjoyable. It means I can make more tackles and really get into that gritty stuff that I don’t mind doing. So yeah, I have really enjoyed defending inside him all year and I’ll keep on doing it for as many games as I have to.

“That’s what it’s all about.”

Lockyer joins an elite group this weekend when he joins Terry Lamb and Steve Menzies on 349 career first grade games and, all going according to plan, will become the first player in history to reach 350 next week.

He will retire at the end of the year after a phenomenal 17 seasons in the NRL, but Thaiday said the 34-year-old continued to surprise him with his resilience and warned opposition sides that they could target Lockyer at their peril.

“They do try and target him… they try and wear him out as much as they can but he is very resilient and I think he has gotten better over the years,” Thaiday said.

“Especially during the latter stages of his career, his defence has come along in leaps and bounds from what it used to be. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to be running at him anymore – I’ve seen him put on a few good shots now – but I’ve got front-row seats there defending inside of him.”

Asked if the growing focus on Lockyer’s farewell was proving somewhat of a distraction for the Broncos, Thaiday said: “Not at all, and I think we want to do it for ourselves as a team first and if we do that – and Locky is a big part of that – then he will get the reward that he deserves.

“We’re not focusing on one player, we really want it as a team. It’s been a big goal for us all year to make the finals and really put ourselves in the position where we can make the finals and give that a crack. It’s more of a team goal than it is an individual goal for just one player.

“Having said that, I know how much Locky has done for this team and how much he has done for Queensland and Australia. He deserves every reward and accolade he can get as a player.”

Although much of the focus will again be on Lockyer as he celebrates his latest milestone this weekend, Thaiday pointed to the Warriors as providing a huge test in the battle for a spot in the top four.

The Kiwi club have won their past four games in yet another late-season surge, with Thaiday insisting it was crucial that his side shut down the second-phase play that has been the Warriors’ strength in 2011.

“That’s a massive part of our game plan,” he said. “If we can stop their offloads, the easier the game will be. Every offload we can stop on the weekend will put us a step closer to winning the game because they do get so much momentum off those second-phase plays – especially with those fast little halves and fullbacks sniffing around that ruck area waiting for an offload from one of their big boys.

“So yeah, their forwards are the key. They’re so big and so mobile and they’ve got so many good ball players in their forwards. Feleti Mateo is having an outstanding season so far – I think he has really hit his straps now that he is over in NZ. If we can beat them in the forward battle we know we’ve got the class out in the backs to score points and hopefully that’s where we can win it.”

Thaiday himself has enjoyed another successful season at both club and representative level, but having been carefully managed throughout the Origin period is feeling fresher than in previous years as the Broncos prepare for another finals assault.

“I feel very good,” he said. “I think we were very lucky to get a bye after that third Origin. ‘Hook’ (coach Anthony Griffin) gave us a week off after that game – we finished up on the Thursday night and we didn’t need to be back at training until the following Thursday so it was really good for him to do that. I’m feeling a lot fresher this year and a lot more enthusiastic rolling into the end of the season.”

Late NRL news:

•    Cronulla are sweating on the return of captain Paul Gallen for tomorrow night’s clash with the Gold Coast. Gallen has missed the past two weeks with a calf injury but resumed running during the week.

•    Penrith remain confident that representative forward Luke Lewis will be fit to take the field against Melbourne tomorrow night after he suffered a heavy concussion in last week’s loss to North Queensland.

•    Exciting winger Kalifa Faifai Loa is likely to be ruled out of tonight’s clash with Canterbury after suffering a hamstring strain last weekend. Will Tupou will be his replacement.