Why post-Thurston plan has Cowboys sitting pretty
In Michael Morgan the North Queensland Cowboys have a rare "franchise player" who can make the transition to the post-Johnathan Thurston era as seamless as it has been for any club that has lost a truly great playmaker to retirement in the modern era, bar the Brisbane Broncos.
Former Broncos premiership winner and commentator Ben Ikin says the key to maintaining continuity after great playmakers retire is to try and find what he calls "a franchise player", who can influence results in the same way. But Ikin admits that is no easy task.
In recent decades the Newcastle Knights, Canberra Raiders and Parramatta Eels have been unable to field a premiership-winning half or a franchise player to fill the voids left by the exits of great modern-day halfbacks Andrew Johns (2007), Ricky Stuart (1998) and Peter Sterling (1992).
The Broncos managed to win two titles after Allan Langer retired at the end of the 1999 season.
Kevin Walters moved to half in 2000, and was joined by Ikin in the premiership-winning side that year. Darren Lockyer switched to chief playmaker in 2004, albeit in the No.6 jersey, where he remained until his retirement at the end of 2011, with the Broncos winning the 2006 title during that time. The Broncos have also reached 16 of 18 finals series since Langer's initial departure.
Ikin said the Cowboys were now in a rare position to be able to cope with Thurston's departure in the same way Brisbane did after Langer's retirement.
"If someone like Andrew Johns slips out of your team you need someone in a playmaking position that can have as big an influence coming in after he goes," Ikin told NRL.com.
"Johnathan Thurston is a franchise player and one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
"To replace him it doesn't have to be like for like, meaning style of play, position etc. It just has to be a player that can have as big an influence on the result as JT did.
"I think Michael Morgan has shown himself, particularly last year, to have that ability.
"I said to [NRL 360 co-host] Paul Kent before the Cowboys played the Raiders in Canberra last year when Thurston wasn't playing that 'Morgan hasn't got this and he has hasn't got that…', but everything I said he didn't have he came out and showed us he's got, and continued to show it for the remainder of the year.
"There was a gap left by JT and Morgan was on the record as saying he didn't want to replace Thurston, but in a heartbeat changed his mind, saw it as a challenge and rose to the challenge."
In Morgan the Cowboys have a 26-year-old franchise player who also happens to be a half and could well have another nine years left at the top level.
The Knights, Eels and Raiders haven't been in that situation, or not for long enough at any rate.
"The Eels have never had someone in the same league as Sterlo," Ikin said. "But you could argue who was the better player out of Alf and Locky, could you not?
"If you are using the Broncos as the analogy, the reason they didn't struggle after Alfie is because they traded out one franchise player for another.
"Alfie retired when a bloke called Darren Lockyer had popped up at fullback. It wasn't in the same position, but he was a franchise player who hung around for the next decade.
"In 2000 Kevvie came in and the Broncos won a comp, but Kevvie was a franchise player himself and you had a young Lockyer at fullback at the peak of his powers. Alf comes back, Alf and Kevvie retire eventually and Locky is there to fill the void [at five-eighth].
"Franchise players like Thurston, Johns and Lockyer leave a massive hole and you can't replace them with two or three bit parts. You need to replace them with someone, like a Morgan, who is as capable."
The Cowboys aren't in this position by chance. They knew Thurston's exit was coming and they have been planning for it.
Ikin said Cowboys general manager of football Peter Parr was excellent at managing a roster.
Parr told NRL.com he and coach Paul Green had been asked many times in recent years "where are you going to go to replace Johnathan?"
"But we always knew that we had somebody within our ranks that we wanted to fill that role," Parr said.
"No one is ever going to replace Johnathan Thurston, let's make that clear. We have never wanted to put the mantle on anyone that they are replacing Johnathan or that they are the next Johnathan, because that would be unfair.
"But we always felt when Johnathan retired that Michael Morgan would have played 140 or 150 NRL games, played in a number of finals series and spent his entire career playing alongside and training with Johnathan.
"We also knew that he would have been in several State of Origin camps and gone on several Australian tours with Johnathan and Cooper Cronk.
"So we always felt he'd done an apprenticeship better than anybody when Johnathan left."
There is no rush, but the next job for Parr is to get the signature of Morgan where it counts.
"The first thing we have got to do is secure Michael to a contract," Parr said.
"We are well aware of that and we hope that becomes a fact, that he remains here.
"There is still a fair bit of work to be done on that but we are confident that we can put something to him that is attractive enough for him to stay.
"Ultimately that will be a decision for Michael but we will be doing everything to keep him at our club."
Morgan is an open book on the subject. While he said in November he might regret not investigating what other opportunities were out there, he qualified that by stating his aim was to stay at the Cowboys.
Now that he is back from his post-World Cup break contract discussions are set to ramp up.
"It has been spoken about but nothing to the extent of a deal being done," Morgan said on Tuesday.
"The club has told me they are interested and want me to stay so I am sure in the next few weeks [negotiations] will start picking up again. I am happy here."
Morgan was nothing but relaxed about his future when asked, and even joked that his good mate Jason Taumalolo had taken all the Cowboys' salary cap funds and that he, and the rest of his teammates, would "play for a pie and a coke".
Jokes aside, another key ace up the Cowboys sleeve was delivered by Thurston himself when he gave more than 12 months' notice of his intention to retire at the end of 2018.
His injury last season was unforeseen, but that too has given the Cowboys a preview of the road ahead.
"The fact that Johnno has made his intentions clear has made it easy for everyone," Green told NRL.com.
"The silver lining to last year was that we got a window into the future to see how the majority of the team will work without Johnno.
"We were forced into it and as the season went on different players stood up and developed well and for a lot of reasons that is the good stuff we will get out of last year.
"It was a peek into the future if you like, of life without JT after he only played seven games for us."
Green was adamant that "once-in-a-generation players like Johnno are not replaced".
"You change the way you play and you fit the guys you've got there into the style of footy you are playing and try and make sure that is the brand of footy that is bringing out the best in everyone," he said.
"We have got a year left with him still playing so we have got a chance for some young guys, including Morgs, to learn off Johnno."
Ikin said the prospect of Thurston and Morgan in tandem for one last hurrah was one to savour.
"It is frightening to think how good they can be together on the back of Morgan's year and JT coming back in the side," Ikin said.
"I don't think Thurston's greatness will have diminished in any shape or form and Morgan has taken his game to another level, so together in 2018 they could be too powerful."