The untold story of how Cowboys roped in JT
It was the coup of all coups, but it took a remarkable three offers in the space of 24 hours to seal the deal.
For the first time, the story of the extraordinary lengths the North Queensland Cowboys went to in order to sign Johnathan Thurston in July, 2004 can be told.
Two offers on July 1, 2004 by football manager Peter Parr to Thurston’s manager Sam Ayoub, followed by another the next day, set the scene for a pivotal meeting at Coogee's Barzura restaurant on the evening of July 2.
In attendance was Parr, Cowboys coach Graham Murray, a 21-year-old Thurston and Ayoub.
The Cowboys had a tradesman-like team with fullback Matt Bowen and hooker Aaron Payne providing spark in key positions. They needed a halfback with genuine flair.
It was Parr’s brief to find one. He found one all right.
Four days after that Sydney meeting, on July 6, Parr received the news that Thurston was leaving the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and was on his way to Townsville.
The story from the Bulldogs' end has been told before. They were given the opportunity to keep Thurston in meetings with Ayoub but for various reasons, still contested by the respective parties to this day, they were unable or unwilling to do so.
This story is about the Cowboys' quest for Thurston.
Parr, who did not disclose the financial contractual details of the emails, went back through his files to showcase just how hard the Cowboys went after a footballer who has since proven to be their talisman.
"I have here an email from Sam Ayoub on Tuesday, July 6 at 3.14pm where he says that… 'we wish to formally confirm our acceptance of your club’s offer as detailed in your club’s email on July 2 of 2004'," Parr tells NRL.com, as he gazes upon correspondence not opened up for years.
"Before that I made two offers on July 1, the first one at 12.38pm. Then I talked to Sam, because I made another offer at 5.36pm. I must have been hot to trot that Thursday afternoon."
The emails continued to fly thick and fast. Ayoub came back 15 minutes later with a counter-offer, and Parr responded at 8.58pm to say his last offer was very close to what the Cowboys could afford in a salary cap and budgetary sense.
Parr made it clear if the offer on the table was the minimum to get Thurston to consider moving from Sydney, then the Cowboys may have to look at other options.
Ayoub acknowledged that, before saying he was looking forward to meeting Parr in Sydney the following evening, with Thurston.
But before that meeting happened, Parr made another offer on July 2, the same day he flew to Sydney.
The Cowboys were playing a high-stakes game and upped the ante with their third and final offer.
In the words of Don Corleone in The Godfather, they made him an offer he could not refuse.
"I’d made him three offers within 24 hours," Parr says.
"Then we wanted to meet Johnathan to make sure that when he considered our offer he wasn't just thinking about the financial commitment but also understood our vision for the club and his role in that.
"The first thing that struck me about Johnathan was how shy he was, the second was how respectful he was.
"We spoke to him about us wanting to play finals footy, because we weren't in the top eight at the time. That night was all about us telling him where we wanted to take the club, how he could help that and the responsibility he would have in coming to us as our number one playmaker."
The pitch, in a nutshell, was Thurston would be "the man".
Dollars were discussed and Parr recalls Ayoub said Thurston's main desire was to remain at the Bulldogs, but the Cowboys would be his preferred destination if he decided to depart.
"Not surprisingly Sam did most of the talking at the meeting, but the deal wasn't done," Parr says.
Season 2004 wasn't unfolding the way the Cowboys wanted, and they sat 12th after round 11.
"When we spoke with Johnathan we were mid-table. We had the makings of a really good side but we had been struggling to find continuity in the halves," Parr recalls.
"Nathan Fien and Chris Sheppard were there, and David Myles who played five-eighth in the finals, but no-one was putting their absolute stamp on it.
"When we first got Travis Norton we thought he might be able to fill a void at five-eighth, but it soon became apparent that his best value to us was at lock.
"Johnathan was playing in a position we needed to strengthen, he played the game in a style we thought we needed at that particular time and he was from Queensland ... so he ticked all the boxes."
Parr and Murray left the meeting at Barzura hopeful, but the ball was not in their court.
"At some point in time you can only go so far in a negotiation, and the final part of it is for the player to decide whether he takes it or doesn’t," Parr says.
"I remember Sam said to me that we needed to keep our discussions confidential and I said 'absolutely we do', and then on the Sunday there was a story in one of the papers saying that we'd met, who was at the meeting and the name of the restaurant.
"I rang Sam up and asked how the media had found that out and that we might as well have had the meeting in the bistro of Canterbury Leagues Club."
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Parr went back to Townsville and waited for an answer, but he didn’t have to wait long.
"I was in my office and Sam rang me to say 'have you checked your emails?'," he recalls.
"I said 'nah, I’ve been busy working on something else', and then he said 'well you better check it because he's coming'.
"It was very good news. My office was next to Muz's and I walked in and gave him that very good news."
The contract was registered by the NRL on July 29 and a little more than a week later Murray and Parr sat back to watch the man they had just paid well over $600,000 over a three-year deal.
The Cowboys played the Bulldogs at the Sydney Showground on August 8 where, in the curtain raiser, Canterbury’s reserve grade side beat North Sydney 64-14.
"Graham Murray and I watched Johnathan destroy North Sydney at the Sydney Showground and that confirmed to us that we had our man. We looked at each other and it was like 'how good is this','' Parr says.
"We were just thanking our lucky stars because he carved them up."
Why did Thurston leave the Bulldogs? NRL.com asked the man himself.
"At the time I was in and out of first grade at the Bulldogs," Thurston says.
"Ahead of me I had Braith Anasta, who had played for Australia and was in the NSW side at the time, and Brent Sherwin who was on the cusp of Origin ... who may have also just signed a five-year deal with the Dogs.
"I was looking for somewhere where I could play first-grade footy week-in and week-out.
"The Cowboys were looking for a dominant half and that is what I wanted to be, to lead the boys around the park.
"I knew a couple of the players from up here and that is why I decided to make the decision.
"I was a massive fan of Matty Bowen and that was one of the big drawcards of coming to Townsville."
Thurston had not met Parr until that gathering in Coogee, but since then the relationship between the two has been one of mutual respect.
"Parry is one of the boys, but he can also pull you into line if you need to be," Thurston says.
"There is no beating around the bush with Parry. He tells you the honest truth. Even though you may not want to hear it, he always does it in your best interests.
"There have been times where other clubs have tried to poach him, and if he had gone without a doubt I would have been looking at options elsewhere as well."
If Townsville wants to institute a public holiday maybe they should do so on July 6. And 3.14pm, the time Thurston agreed to the move north, would be the time to crack the top off a cold one and celebrate.
"Although I don’t think anyone else said it was a coup at the time," Parr chuckles.
"It was a good year of recruiting for us because that year we signed Thurston, Carl Webb and Justin Smith.
"Out of those three guys, the one that created the most interest was Carl Webb because we got him off the Broncos. We got Travis Norton, Paul Rauhihi and Luke O’Donnell the year before.
"When you put that with Matt Bowen, Aaron Payne, Paul Bowman and Matt Sing then you can understand why people started to think we were putting a good team together."
Thurston, who will play against Melbourne in a testimonial match to celebrate his career and that of Cameron Smith at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night, moved his belongings to Townsville on the weekend of November 6 and 7 of 2004 and has never left.
"There is no doubt that the two most significant figures in the club’s history have been Johnathan and [chairman] Laurence Lancini," Parr says.
Lancini, a well-respected local businessman, has been "the rock" who in tough times has held the Cowboys together.
Thurston, who kicked the golden point field goal to win the Cowboys their maiden premiership in 2015, has been "the maestro".
"We’ve had a lot of great players ... but what Johnathan has done with the profile he has given the club, the consistency of his performance and the fact that in his next game he will have played more games for the Cowboys than anybody else is extraordinary."