Clifford's rise gives Cowboys hope for post-Thurston era
The start to rookie Jake Clifford's NRL career has given the club renewed optimism that the post-Johnathan Thurston era can be a prosperous one for the North Queensland Cowboys.
The 20-year-old five-eighth has played four Telstra Premiership games alongside Thurston, which will likely be seven games by the time the season ends.
With Te Maire Martin impressing at fullback, that the Cowboys can aim to start next season with Clifford and Morgan in the halves.
After fellow NRL clubs Newcastle and Brisbane both struggled after the retirements of champion halves Andrew Johns and Allan Langer, the Cowboys are under no illusions that Thurston's absence will leave a massive void.
Cowboys director of football Peter Parr said Clifford's rise had come at just the right time, but not by accident.
"We have tried to plan as well as we can for JT’s departure," Parr told NRL.com.
"We always knew about Michael Morgan’s ability and Te Maire Martin has done really well since he’s come to the club, and we knew Jake was coming through the system.
"We are trying to handle that transition the best we can and to have Te Maire, Michael and Jake on our books, all at different parts of their career, will keep us in good stead. I’m not convinced we can do much better than that to be honest."
Parr said the Cowboys always had the view it would be good for Clifford's development if he played with Thurston in 2018.
Morgan's season-ending pectoral injury and the loss of form of Lachlan Coote paved the way for a readjustment of the spine and Clifford's insertion.
"It looks like he might get six or seven games with Johnathan and that can’t do anything but help his development," Parr said.
Coach Paul Green said Clifford's early elevation would also assist his start to the 2019 season.
"When a young guy makes his debut or gets his first crack it takes a while for him to feel like he belongs there, apart from the rare talents that fit in straight away and hit the ground running," Green told NRL.com.
"It is normal for a young guy to feel his way in. It is such an important position that he plays and Jake is going through that now, so that when we throw him in next year he will know what to expect.
"He will have had a taste of it so he will know what level he will have to play at to be an NRL player.”
Thurston will be on board next year as a mentor for the halves which will only benefit Clifford, who is signed at the club until the end of 2020.
"Jake is a local from Tully who has grown up here. He’s come up through our system and played under-age and Queensland Cup with the Northern Pride, one of our affiliated clubs, and now he is playing NRL for our club," Parr said.
"He is the type of player and person that we don’t ever want to lose."
Clifford has warmed to the task of playing alongside Thurston and it was noted in the 34-30 win over the Broncos how he is now more prepared to call plays himself and not let his halves partner do it all.
"He has had a good induction and handled himself really well," Parr said.
"Not only is it intimidating for a young guy to play NRL level for the first time, it is also intimidating partnering one of the greatest halfbacks who has ever played the game.
"As great as it is for his development, there is also an intimidation factor or a mindset of ‘just give the ball to Johnathan’ so with everything he's had to handle, he’s done a very good job.
"He is a very level-handed young man so we hope long-term he’ll handle NRL and establish a really long career with the club."