Thurston brilliance driven by pain
When Johnathan Thurston broke down in tears after receiving his record fourth Dally M Medal on Monday night it was something of a release for the pain his body has been put through over the course of his extraordinary career.
Groin and calf injuries will keep him to light duties for the early part of grand final week and the man overseeing his physical preparation for Sunday's Telstra Premiership decider will once again be long-time Cowboys physiotherapist Steve Sartori.
Sartori has been mending busted bodies for 18 of the Cowboys' 21 seasons in the National Rugby League and has seen first-hand what Thurston has had to endure in order to play in such a way that has many lauding him as the greatest of all time.
Now in his 11th season in Townsville, Thurston has had two shoulder reconstructions, knee, ankle and groin surgeries along with chronic injuries with his neck and back and Sartori says it is the mental strength of players such as Thurston to play through pain that separates them from the rest.
"When you play NRL at a high level you need to be able to play under physical duress; enduring physical pain is part of the effort. Good players can do that, bad players can't, and it is as simple as that," Sartori says in the book celebrating the Cowboys' first 20 years in the NRL, 20 Years In The Saddle.
"Some players have all the talent and ability in the world but if you can't do that you will never make it; never.
"You see how many players who come through here – and every other NRL club is the same – loaded with all the talent in the world, but if they can't apply themselves or play under duress physically or mentally, they won't last.
"[Thurston] had his shoulder in a sling for five weeks and I saw him every day. Then after six weeks he had the other shoulder done.
"He worked very hard to come back at the start of the '09 season; he had six months daily rehab on one shoulder and four and a half on the other, daily rehab.
"Even today he has to do rehab every day to keep them going.
"It's the same with his groin and his back. Once you have that done you don't stop, so you can maintain strength – 20 to 30 minutes with me, five days a week, on top of weights and regular training."
On one of the walls of the Cowboys' inner sanctum are posters of four club legends who have fought through countless injuries in order to contribute positively to the club.
Thurston, Brent Tate, Matt Bowen and Matthew Scott are all featured as reminders to the current crop –and those to come through the Cowboys in the future – of the sacrifices required to compete at the highest level.
Scott is due to have surgery on a neck injury once the 2015 season is completed, a chronic condition that has been affecting him for a number of years.
"Matthew Scott is another example of how dedicated and professional players can be. He's got a lot of issues," Sartori says.
"He has problems with his back and neck and knees, an ankle which had surgery; issues through his spine as he's been colliding consistently with 100-kilogram-plus forwards.
"He has preventative programs he needs to do on top of everything else too – the ongoing treatment.
"Matthew didn't miss a game in 2013 for his club, Queensland or Australia [other than being rested for World Cup games like other squad members]; that was 35 games.
"His application to detail and discipline to do what you need to do to stay on the field is enormous. Matthew will always do extra work on the field, extra running after training.
"It is just what he does and why he is what he is.
"When you suffer a serious injury, for the first few months it's pretty much pain and suffering, hard work, weights and cardio.
"You can't run so you're stuck on the roller or swimming in the pool or on a bike… it's just endless, day after day.
"It's what you have to do."
20 Years In The Saddle by Neil Cadigan is available online through the Cowboys Shop.