No coach has been a more constant presence in the career of Johnathan Thurston than Neil Henry and the Titans mentor believes the game's premier player will step aside when still performing at the peak of his powers.
In his roles as North Queensland assistant coach and then head coach, Queensland assistant and Indigenous All Stars coach Henry has coached Thurston in some capacity in 161 games since 2005 and is now tasked with devising a game-plan to stop him.
Thurston's Cowboys are all that stands between the Titans and a first finals appearance since 2010 with Gold Coast faced with the daunting assignment of knocking over the defending premiers on their home soil in Townsville on Saturday evening.
Working as Graham Murray's assistant when Thurston first came to Townsville ahead of the 2005 season Henry has seen first-hand the evolution of one of the game's most gifted playmakers into a leader in both his club and the North Queensland community.
Last year he achieved the pinnacle by kicking the winning field goal to secure the Cowboys' maiden premiership and Henry is confident that he will join a select group of players who choose to go out on their terms.
"You want to retire when they're saying, 'Why didn't you go around another year?', not retire with people saying you went two years too long," said Henry ahead of his return to Townsville where he spent eight years and where his daughter is studying at university.
"'Johno' will exit on his terms playing good footy and it's only a few players that get to do that. He'll be one of them.
"He's learnt to manage his body really well, the age that he is now. He was born in 1983, Anzac Day, so he's 33 turning 34 and 'Locky' (Darren Lockyer) did the same. They actually got better at managing their bodies the older they got.
"JT's year last year was sublime. I think it was the most complete year of his career in quality of what he did as a 32-year-old. His legs were fresh and still crafty and still creative and made the clutch plays."
Thurston was promoted to the North Queensland captaincy in his third year at the club at the age of 23 but it was Henry who helped to share the load when he promoted Matt Scott to the co-captaincy in 2011.
"Matt Scott's been a great foil for him because you've got that dual role there," Henry said.
"Even though 'JT' is the one that is talked about the most, Matt Scott has been a real steadying influence as well around how he conducts himself.
"He just gets the job done each week at the highest level and in the engine room, up front where there is nowhere to hide.
"[Thurston] was handed the captaincy at an early age in terms of leadership ability. But one thing that put him in good stead around that whole scenario was how he played and how he trained and how he prepared.
"If you've got all that – a hard trainer, meticulous with his preparation, practises, and produces every week – there's instant leadership with how you conduct yourself.
"Whether or not you can impart that leadership onto other people and say something when you see something wrong, that takes time and a bit of a skill about how you handle different personalities."
As for how to stop the man regarded the game's best player, Henry says that it is the supporting cast that has been assembled at the Cowboys that makes Thurston's threat as great as it has ever been.
"The more options he's got with the players around him the harder he is to stop," said Henry, who took the Cowboys to the finals in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
"He was easy to stop when the team for years didn't really have another half for him. Different guys filled in but it was always a matter of, 'Well, we've got JT, who are we going to fill in around him?'
"That made it a bit one dimensional and as defences got better, made it harder for him to be as creative. He was the go-to man all the time.
"Now they've got the good balance. 'Morgo' (Michael Morgan) having to play that season at fullback was fantastic for his running game and so Johno has another guy who is a strong carrier of the ball.
"Then you add Lachlan Coote at the back who is a ball-playing running fullback and suddenly you've got a little bit like they had with Matty Bowen back there.
"[Jason] Taumalolo coming of age, the edge back-rowers running good lines… He's got a lot of choices now and when he's got choices the defence has got even more to worry about."
Game on. Data off.
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