Thurston joins NRL 300 club as great leader on and off field
Great footballer, and now a great leader of men as well.
As North Queensland Cowboys halfback Johnathan Thurston prepares to line up for his 300th NRL game on Friday night it is his evolution into a once-in-a-generation player and inspirational captain that has blown away club legend Josh Hannay, now the club's assistant coach.
Before Thurston landed in Townsville for the 2005 season, the Cowboys had reached one finals series out of 10.
Since his arrival, they have made nine of the next 13, including the 2015 premiership where Thurston's golden-point field goal won the match.
Thurston is the man who has taken the Cowboys to a level they had only dreamed about.
Cowboys general football manager Peter Parr recently told NRL.com the club's success has had Thurston's fingerprints all over it.
Once regular under-achievers, they are now an NRL powerhouse which has appeared in the past seven finals series.
"You talk about powerhouse clubs and they all have one thing in common, a champion player that drives the standards on and off the field and takes everyone along for the ride," Hannay told NRL.com.
"JT is that player for us now, but that mantle of being a leader on and off the field has sat more comfortably as the years have gone by.
"When he came to us initially he was trying to be the best footballer he could, and a bloody good one he was. The leadership side has come to him later in his career and agrees with him now.
"There was a point in his career where he had to make the decision whether he wanted to just be a champion footballer or a champion footballer and a wonderful leader as well. He decided to be both."
Cowboys insiders would pinpoint that moment as coming in the aftermath of Thurston's night in a Brisbane watchhouse in 2010 after he had been arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour.
There was a push from the board to axe him from the captaincy and worse, but calmer heads prevailed and Thurston received the backing of chairman Laurence Lancini and Parr based on his contrition. It was decided to take a punt on him never again being in that position.
That gamble has paid off, as did the original decision to sign him as an unproven Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs player of immense promise.
"I remember that time really clearly, and fondly, because prior to JT’s arrival we generally didn’t have a lot of success," Hannay recalled.
"JT was a young player with a huge rap on him and stuck in reserve grade at Canterbury behind Brent Sherwin and Braith Anasta.
“All we kept hearing was how good this kid was and how he was tearing up the reserve grade competition, and to Peter Parr and the club’s credit they took a punt on him.
"Doesn’t look like a punt now does it? It looks like a pretty sure thing, but at the time they paid overs just based on his potential, and he’s paid the club back in spades."
The Cowboys didn’t have established halves at the club at the time after Nathan Fien had moved to the Warriors at the end of 2004.
They were seeking their version of an Allan Langer, Andrew Johns or Ricky Stuart, and found him.
"Five-eighth had been a bit of a revolving door for us," Hannay recalled.
"Justin Smith had come to the club as a recognised back-rower and David Myles as an outside back.
"They both had done a really good job for us in a position they were unaccustomed to, and we had Brett Firman and Chris Sheppard as halves at the club in 2005 as well, but it was JT who put his stamp on it.
"His impact was immediate. He was really confident in his own ability and believed that he belonged in first grade right from the start. He showed us that in his first year when he won the Dally M and took us to the grand final."
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We have seen the banana kicks, the famous show and go, the sleight of hand passes, tactical nous and breathtakingly successful combinations with Matthew Bowen and Gavin Cooper.
But for Cowboys great Paul Bowman, now boss of the club's high-performance unit, there is another facet of Thurston's play that is his hallmark.
"The thing that makes him great, apart from making other people look better, is his desire and will to win and do his best," Bowman told NRL.com.
"You watch a defensive set of ours and if a break is made on the other side of the field then Johnno is there in cover. With the kick-chase, after he’s made the kick, he’s the first one down there.
"For all the brilliance, it is all those effort plays and the willingness to do everything for the team that stands him apart and why everyone loves playing with him.
"It is the effort he displays on every play that makes him great, and that is one thing that hasn’t changed over all the years.
"He has obviously matured as a player and a person and is able to make better decisions more frequently than when he first started out but he has always had that phenomenal desire and will to win. That is what separates good players from great players.”
The Thurston laugh is one of a kind and his personality, particularly around those he trusts, is larger than life.
Hannay said that charisma has also been a magnet for those around him and one reason why his teammates have continued their ascent.
“From the first moment he came he was the life of the party and the centre of attention, but not in a bad way," Hannay said.
"He was never a showboat but you couldn’t help but gravitate to him whether it be on the training field or in a social setting, and that has remained. He is still fun to be around.
"I see him day-in and day-out and how he interacts with the playing group today and he is still the guy that sets the standards."