JOHNATHAN Thurston puts his hands under the armpits of the tiny kid and lifts him high into the Northern Territory sky. “You’ve got to run fast, right?”.
The boy giggles before tucking a ball that seems half his size under one wing and hitting a tackling pad hard enough to topple the ball balanced on top of it. He picks up the ball, draws Ashton Sims and puts a classmate over for a try.
We are at Roseberry Middle School, 25km outside Darwin. It’s windy – and hot. Suburban parents stand around taking photographs as their respective prides and joys undergo a series of drills with the North Queensland Cowboys on a sports field adjoining the school, otherwise deserted for the holidays.
Thurston wanders over to a makeshift marquee (four posts and some tarp) protecting parents and some shy little sisters from the harsh sun. He starts signing caps and t-shirts, using a plastic water bottle to get the pen working – an indication that he is more familiar with the implement than many sketch artists.
“Want a picture?” he says to a youngster, who hasn’t actually asked, before posing with that smile you’ve seen more than a few times in Rugby League Week’s True Fans section.
You might have noticed a change in JT this year. Yeah, he’s wearing six instead of seven. But he just seems to be around more, you know what I mean? Whereas Matt Scott’s appointment as Cowboys co-captain may have been partly motivated by helping Thurston escape some of the duties associated with the role, this year he doesn’t seem just willing to be a front-man. He appears to be actually relishing it.
“I suppose … I’m 29 this year, I’ve only got a few years left in me,” Thurston says as we shelter under the tarp.
“I want to make the most of that. I certainly enjoy doing this promotional stuff because, no doubt, it’s not going to be around much longer.”
Our cover photograph this week captures Johnathan in his new Australian Test gear for this Saturday’s Eden Park Test against New Zealand. It’s the start of the post-Lockyer era for the green-and-gold, one in which Thurston will be relied upon to a much greater degree.
But just as the Australian team needs a new playmaker, the game in this country is probably down one statesman with Lockyer’s retirement. Thurston seems ready to fill that gap, too.
“I suppose it will be a bit weird,” he says. “I’ve played all my Australian footy alongside him … but it’s one of those things.
“When a great player leaves, the rest of the team has to stand up. He’s done a lot for the game and a lot for that jersey and we have to move on without him.
“I’ve played 20-odd Tests. Smithy (hooker Cameron Smith) will be the captain but we’ve got a good healthy group of senior players who’ve played a lot of footy alongside each other in that jersey so….
“A lot of those boys will have to stand up.”
This is an interesting time for international rugby league. World Cup holders New Zealand performed poorly in the Four Nations last year; nations and provinces are fighting over players as if they are chequebook wielding clubs.
Only just under a fortnight ago, Thurston’s clubmate James Tamou chose NSW over New Zealand. NZRL operations manager Tony Kemp flew to Townsville to make sure another Cowboy, James Taumalolo, didn’t pick Queensland over the Kiwis.
As a statesman, Johnathan will be expected to have an opinion on these issues.
His first comment on the controversy is a gem. “I suppose it’s a fickle world, isn’t it?” he says with a grin.
“Obviously the rep teams are vying for the best talent in the game.
“You’ve got the residency rule now as well. Certainly, I suppose, with the diverse backgrounds and the multi-cultural (scene) that we have in the game, Polynesians and the indigenous boys and so-forth, that’s just the way it is.
“And I think it will remain the way it is.”
OK, onto the actual footy game this Saturday.
New Zealand have a poor record in the Anzac Test; in fact, the Kiwis have only ever won it once, in 1998. But Thurston points out: “We’re playing at Eden Park!
“We don’t look at that (record) at all. Every Test is played on its merits. We’ll be expecting a very tough contest.”
Of course, regardless of what happens on Saturday, New Zealand will remain world champions at least until next November, when the World Cup concludes in Europe. The Australians, though, like to use a different term to “world champions”…
“They’re the World Cup champions,” says Thurston. ”We can’t do anything about that until the next World Cup rolls around. No matter what we do between the World Cups, they’re still going to be World Cup champions until someone else is.
“That’s just the way it is.”
And Saturday also provides us with a glimpse of the future for Queensland, with Thurston to partner Cooper Cronk against the Kiwis. JT admits they are “both dominant players in our own club teams” – but does not see that as a problem for the green, gold or maroon.
“We’ve played a little bit of footy alongside each other in Test footy. I’m expecting things to run pretty smoothly there,” he theorises.
“We’ll have a little chat about it when it comes around, see how Sheensy (coach Tim Sheens) wants to play us and work on what’s best for the team.”
Chances are, JT won’t shirk any promotional responsibilities on either side of the Tasman this week. Even at fulltime, when he doesn’t particularly feel like talking to pesky sideline eyes, he will.
“It is (tough), especially after a loss when you’re burning,” he says “You’ve got to think about how the game went and where you could have done things differently
“But that’s part and parcel of the game, giving your thoughts on how you went, personally as a team and what you need to improve on.”
Yes, in retirement Thurston would like to be involved in television.
Journalists often snigger about athletes who become more approachable late in their careers when they start to look ahead to a job in the media.
But if you think about it, any subtle changes in demeanour are probably as much about realising all of it will soon be gone – including lifting kids into the sky at coaching clinics – and it’s a much better idea to leave a positive legacy than be remembered just as a good footballer.
“It’s about making the most of what’s happening now,” Thurston nods, “and doing what I can that’s best for the game.
“I’m contracted to next year and hopefully I can stay at the club and play out my career at the club.”
He says his body would never let him play as long as Cliff Lyons or Steve Menzies.
After that? “I haven’t put too much thought into it. I certainly don’t mind the media side of it. I did a bit of sideline commentary which I enjoyed. I’ve been on the Footy Show a fair bit, NRL On Fox. I don’t mind doing that.
“I’m in my 11th or 12th year of first grade. I certainly love the game and what it’s done for me. I’d like to stay involved in it.
“All I’ve known is rugby league, since I was six.”
When someone lifted Johnathan Thurston to the sky when he was six, he stayed there.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK