Johnathan Thurston may have missed out on the Australian of the Year award but his achievements are set to be celebrated around the country as the 34-year-old superstar embarks on a virtual national farewell tour with the North Queensland Cowboys.
Thurston, who acknowledged quantum physicist professor Michelle Simmons as a “thoroughly deserved winner” and “an incredible woman who is changing the world”, has retired from representative football and announced this will be his last year in the Telstra Premiership.
It is the first time in recent memory a season has started with fans knowing the exact date that one of the game’s greats will play his final match at each venue and the NRL releasing the full draw has ensured as many people as possible get the chance to say goodbye to Thurston.
In what can be billed as a 10-city farewell tour, the Test and Origin star is scheduled to play in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland, Canberra, Gold Coast and Townsville, as well as Cairns, Darwin and Bathurst, where rival clubs are taking home games against the Cowboys.
Newcastle is the only city with its own NRL team that the Cowboys won’t visit, while the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and St George Illawarra Dragons are the other clubs to miss out on hosting a match featuring Thurston.
All three clubs are entitled to be disappointed, as the Dragons - through former coach Nathan Brown, who is now in charge of the Knights – were the only ones to show interest in Thurston when most in the game considered him too small before he eventually signed with the Bulldogs in 2001.
Thurston overcame off-field incidents at the Bulldogs and Cowboys, including his very public arrest outside Brisbane casino in 2010, to forge a remarkable career in which he is regarded as one of the best players of all time.
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Among his achievements are four Dally M Medals, three Golden Boot awards and the Clive Churchill Medal as player of the 2015 grand final in which he kicked an extra-time field goal to secure the Cowboys' first premiership – and his second after he was part of the Bulldogs' 2004 title triumph.
Called into the grand final team to replace injured Bulldogs captain Steve Price, he showed the generosity which has made him such a great role model and ambassador when he gave Price his NRL premiership ring.
After being awarded the 2017 Australian Human Rights Medal for his work in the indigenous community, it can be argued Thurston’s feats off the field outweigh those on it and his comments about the date of Australia Day demonstrated the influence he now wields.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told the media: “What I heard Johnathan Thurston talking about was that there are some people in Australia that don’t feel the date of Australia is inclusive for all Australians.
“I do think that Australia Day does need to be inclusive for all Australians and it is a conversation that people will need to have, and it is good that he is raising that issue.”
Thurston was Queensland’s nomination for Australian of the Year and has been arguably the most influential figure in the Maroons’ 12-year Origin domination after playing a record 36 consecutive games so it is no surprise his views carry such weight in the state.
However, there are few players who have been as popular across the game, with Thurston being the king of kids who wait by the tunnel at half-time and full-time in the hope of being handed his headgear, and rival clubs are planning to honour him at their home games this season.
“The Melbourne JT farewell is a massive drawcard for that game, so we’ll certainly be encouraging fans to come along,” a Storm official said.
A Warriors spokesman said Thurston’s final game in Auckland had figured in planning for the round-five double-header at Mt Smart Stadium.
The Cowboys are working on a special tribute for Thurston’s 300th NRL game when they host the Cronulla Sharks in the opening premiership match at 1300SMILES Stadium on March 9, while the club is planning other celebrations of his career during the season.
After being denied the opportunity to farewell Thurston at Origin or Test level after he fractured his shoulder before kicking the match-winning sideline conversion in Origin II to level the series for Queensland, fans can’t afford to miss this chance to say goodbye to one of the game’s greats as he makes his way around the country this season.