Sharks in awe of Thurston's genius
Brilliant. Genius. Exceptional. Amazing. Just some of the superlatives Cronulla players had to describe Cowboys maestro Johnathan Thurston after his match-winning piece of magic in an extra-time thriller against the Broncos last week.
Senior Sharks like Michael Ennis and Wade Graham could afford to watch that 26-20 semi-final as stunned fans of the game but will this week turn their attentions to somehow trying to find a way to limit the opportunities of the best halfback in the world.
In a match for the ages, arguably the best contest so far this year and arguably the best of the past four epic encounters between rivals North Queensland and Brisbane, Thurston did it again.
Five minutes into extra time and 85 minutes into a gruelling contest in tropical heat and humidity, despite having battled illness all week, despite being dehydrated and exhausted and battered, Thurston produced a slick show-and-go before palming off close mate Sam Thaiday and producing a genius of a flick pass inside for Michael Morgan's match-winner.
"He's done it for 10 years, that's why he's the best. He's brilliant," an awed Graham told NRL.com as his side prepares to host the Cowboys in Friday night's preliminary final.
"He came up against Sammy Thaiday there and it just goes to show when you're in the heat of the moment, Sammy's probably made 40 tackles and 20 hit-ups and 'JT' is competing from the first whistle to the very last and if he doesn't get you the first 20 times he'll get you on the 21st time when you're just off.
"He's such a good player and the contest was brilliant."
Ennis was similarly impressed by what Thurston was continually able to produce when games are on the line.
"His performance on Friday night was exceptional," Ennis said.
"He was absolutely out on his feet at times there and the game was played at a frantic pace and he was copping plenty of traffic but to produce what he did at the end was true Thurston.
"He's a class act and it's just a timely reminder that we're going to need to play 'til the end whistle because he just keeps competing. It's a good lesson for everyone that comes up against him."
Ennis said one of Thurston's major strengths is an ability to play "in the moment".
"Coaches always talk about playing in the moment and playing what's in front of them and he's exactly that," Ennis said.
"For a guy that's probably late 80 kilos to have the traffic he has but to have the awareness and the smarts to stay in the game and not get rattled by that and to come up with plays like he does – he's a genius."
Despite the clear threat of Thurston, Ennis insisted that like any contest the key to victory against the Cowboys would be found in the middle of the field.
"I thought Brisbane did a big job matching them through the middle with their big guys," he said.
"They've obviously got a forward pack full of internationals right through their squad, even onto their bench with guys like [Ben] Hannant, all played Origin or Test football.
"I think you need to be able to control the football, you need to be really good with your kicking game and your kick chase and you need to capitalise when you get your opportunities because you don't get many against them so you need to make sure you're taking your chances when you get them."
Game on. Data off.
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