Indigenous All Stars great Johnathan Thurston.

Thurston's Australia Day stance wins NRL-wide support

Johnathan Thurston's call for a "national chat" around Australia Day is causing waves throughout the game, with several influential rugby league figures applauding the North Queensland Cowboys co-captain's stance on the polarising issue.

Thurston's push for further education and understanding around the January 26 date, which has made headlines for the negative connotations invoked for many indigenous Australians, has gained significant traction since the 34-year-old spoke out on NRL.com on Monday.

ARL Commissioner Megan Davis, who also serves as an expert on human rights for the UN, described Thurston as a "marvellous asset to our code and a wonderful role model".

Indigenous All Stars forward Joel Thompson tweeted the story with a simple message of ''truth'', while former NRL star Willie Mason and Melbourne's Sandor Earl also voiced their support for Thurston's comments on Twitter.

Thompson later posted on Instagram with a lengthier message about Thurston's sentiments: "TRUTH... It’s as simple as that ✊🏽 This is why the history of our beautiful country should be compulsory in all of our schools. Time to heal and move forward."

Ex-players Dean Widders and Jamie Soward have shown support for Thurston's cause, which has attracted more than 4000 likes in the 24 hours since being shared from the NRL's official Facebook account, while Jillaroos World Cup winner Lavina O'Mealey said Thurston's stance had prompted her own "conversations" with family and friends.

Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston at the All Stars game.
Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston at the All Stars game. ©NRL Photos

Widders, now an indigenous pathways manager with the NRL after having enjoyed a 159-game career, applauded Thurston for his "sensible" approach to a topic that has created heated national debate.

"I think JT's comments, and how he said his piece, was a really smart way to go about it and a good step," Widders told NRL.com.

"It's all about having that conversation, learning more and understanding more and coming to some sort of agreement all together eventually.

"As JT was saying [January 26] can be a tough day for a lot of indigenous, and people come to understand that through more learning and the conversation he was talking about."

Widders did however take issue with the suggestion from Aboriginal activist Joe Williams, who urged Thurston to consider refusing to stand for the national anthem should he be crowned Australian of the Year this week.

"One thing to make clear though is we shouldn't be putting pressure on JT, or anyone, to be sitting down through anthems or anything like that," Widders said in reference to the former South Sydney Rabbitohs halfback's suggestion.

"All he's asking for is a conversation starter. No-one needs to put more pressure on him, or that he should do this or he should do that.

"He's said a really smart thing in that we need to be having more conversations and more understanding about cultural sensitivities.

"But there's no need to be putting pressure on people to go on beyond that."

This is why the history of our beautiful country should be compulsory in all of our schools.

Joel Thompson

Soward, a three-time Indigenous All Star during a 231-game career with the Sydney Roosters, St George Illawarra Dragons and Penrith Panthers, commended Thurston's work for the indigenous community for which he has been nominated for Australian of the Year honours.

"That's a massive achievement for him, and not just him but rugby league in general," Soward said.

"I think sometimes it can be lost that JT is doing a fantastic thing for his community, but this could open doors. Everyone knows who Johnathan Thurston is now.

"Johnathan has been an exemplary athlete and person for such a long time, for him to be up for an award like this is opening more doors and conversations, having him up for the award is progressing not just rugby league, but also those important conversations for us as a sport and a nation."

For O'Mealey, a proud Indigenous woman with Bidgigal and Bunjalung heritage, Thurston's leadership has prompted her own plans to tackle the touchy subject among the Australian women's team.

The Jillaroos will play a tournament on February 23-24 at Redcliffe’s Dolphin Oval, which is being staged in the lead-up to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April. 

"It's given me a platform to speak about the date actually, a bit of courage to talk to friends and people in my community and hopefully give not just black, but white people as well, a bit of an olive branch in a conversation that needs to be had," O'Mealey said.

"I was talking about it today with my colleagues and I'll go into [Jillaroos] camp and it's a conversation I'd like to have with my teammates and see what they think about it.

"No disrespect or preaching, just a conversation as mates."