IT’S April 20 2013, in the spacious visitors dressingroom at Eden Park, and one of the greatest players in either rugby code is only just short of being a nervous wreck.
The mid-season Test between Australa and New Zealand has been about as one-sided as a rugby league contest gets, with the Kiwis not having won in 14 years.
But that’s not why Johnathan Thurston, yet to don the green and gold number six jersey for the first time, is sweating already.
“That Test was just about the hardest preparation I’ve had for a game,” Thurston tells Rugby League Week.
“Being my first game at that level after moving from halfback to five-eighth after the retirement of Darren Lockyer, I was stepping into some pretty big shoes and I didn’t know how I was going to go.
“It’s about the worse game I’ve had, nerves-wise. I was sitting there at Eden Park with plenty of butterflies, really focused on what I had to do.
“The nerves were there before the game but once I got out there, they went away and I just got on with it. But it was definitely hard.”
Twelve months on, with the Anzac Test coming around again this Friday, it’s as if Thurston has always been in the six shirt. His focus is no longer on proving himself but on the final few years of his career and leaving the best legacy he can.
Seven years and 23 Tests after his international debut, Thurston is being spoken about as potentially the greatest player the Australian game has ever seen.
He has signed a four-year contract extension with the Cowboys and will retire after that, meaning that’s how long he has to justify those predictions. A youngster who lived in the moment and thought little about his image for much of a glittering career, Thurston is now one of the NRL’s most focused individuals.
“I’d like to play at this level for a few years yet,” he says of the Test arena, which moves to Canberra Stadium this Friday. “We’ll see how we go with the rigours of the World Cup and reassess then.
“I’d like to think I could pump out another couple of years in Test football. I haven’t thought too much about giving up. I’m proud of the fact I hold that jersey and it’s close to my heart.”
Before his most recent international appearance in Townsville on October 12 last year, Thurston got under the skin of touch judges by calling them glorified spectators and gave little hints he was heading to Penrith.
As he left Australia and headed to New York to mull over the competing offers away from a cyclone of publicity, he encounter a natural disaster that was no cliché. “Yeah, we had to contend with Hurricane Sandy,” he says.
The natural disaster caused $75 billion in damage and killed 285 people. “I had a friend who was staying down in Wall Street and he had no power for eight days,” Thurston recalls.
“We were just off Times Square, on 52nd Street, so we still had power and water. We were lucky.
“I was supposed to go to a wedding in Bali, straight from New York, and we were there for nine more days. I don’t know what people who couldn’t afford the accommodation would have done because the city’s airports were closed and it was hard to get out.
“Luckily we caught up with the people from the wedding back in Townsville and had a good time.”
The tumbling rain gave Thurston time to consider his future – and we’re not just talking football. He proposed to his partner, Samatha, when they were in the US. Once that was sorted out, there was the small matter of where they would live from 2014 onwards.
At times late last year, pundits were convinced Thurston was heading to Centrebet Stadium.
“It was probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make – it was like a merrygoround,” he says. “One minute it was ‘that’s it, we’re staying’ and the next it was ‘let’s go, let’s go’.
“But when we made the decision, we were happy with it and haven’t had any regrets. We think staying in Townsville is the right thing for the family.”
He says that while there were several offers for his services, Penrith’s “was the hardest one to say ‘no’ to.”
Thurston admits to RLW that he has a tiny tinge of regret over one thing involving his contractual arrangements over the years – that he didn’t have a go at another sport, given that code-hopping is becoming increasingly commonplace.
“Back the last time I was off contract, I had an offer to go and join a French rugby union club. It would have involved playing in the Heiniken Cup and all that.
“That, back then, was a tough decision – but nowhere near as tough as the one I had to make just recently. It would have been good to have a go at rugby union, I guess.”
With the ANZAC Test, Origin and the World Cup dead ahead, Thurston says he doesn’t change too much mentally or physically. “The clubs’ training staff are tend to keep you off your feet a bit … that’s about it,” he says.
But winning back the World Cup after the disappointments of 2008 is the larger task at hand when the Australian run onto the turf at Bruce on Friday. Many members of Tim Sheens’ side were not there at the last tournament, which finished in a boilover 34-20 win to the Kiwis, which gives those who were the task of reinforcing what’s at stake.
“What happened in 2008 does not sit well with me and the others in the team at the time,” he says. “We are very aware that New Zealand are world champions and we have to win the trophy back.
“There’ll be a number of fellas in the side who played in the final in 2008 who’ll want to make up for it.”
It probably won’t be Thurston’s final visit to the UK. A Four Nations is pencilled in for 2015. But he says that when his Cowboys contract expires, there’s no way he’s going to Super League.
“I have no ambition to play overseas at all,” he insists. “When all this is over, I’m looking forward to putting my feet up and doing as little as possible.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK