The Cowboys were the first team I followed when I got back into the NRL. I’m not sure why, since I actually don’t know a lot about them now – player-for-player, it’s probably the team I keep least tabs on, with the possible exceptions of the Titans and Broncos. A lot of it probably boils down to Johnathan Thurston, who’s not only one of the best players the NRL has to offer – probably the best – but also one of the funniest. So often, NRL players feel drenched in a kind of studied self-seriousness that reaches preposterous heights around Origin time, but fizzles and slow burns all year round as well. Granted, Thurston is one of the most dedicated Origin players – again, probably the best – but he’s also one of the most laidback, relaxed and downright funny players in the game as well, famous for his trademark kookaburra-laugh. One of the best moments in recent NRL coverage has been the ongoing banter between Thurston and Hindy, with J.T. coasting on his post-game highs to deliver one-liners that leave even Hindy – the purported funny man of The Matty Johns Show – unable to come up with any riposte on the spot, reduced to a fuming mess that J.T. know just how far he can prod. At times, it’s almost like watching a brilliant sitcom in miniature – an odd couple – as J.T. just keeps coming back each time with another zinger, until every Cowboys clash feels like it boils down to a Cowboys-Eels slinging match whenever Hindy takes the commentator chair. For my money, Thurston is going to be one of the most winning commentators in the game once he retires – which admittedly isn’t saying a huge amount – since he’s already halfway there, not merely in his back-and-forths with The Matty Johns Show, The Footy Show and the Fox Sports crew, but in his banter and commentary onfield as well, making him one of the most entertaining footy players to watch miced up. And that kind of brings me to what I love about the Cowboys, which is that they feel more driven, as a team, by the charisma of their captain than any other outfit in the NRL. For all the brilliance of the individual players – Jason Taumalolo in particular is a rising star – they all feel guided by Thurston’s deft touch in every move and moment, which is perhaps what really cements him as the auteur and greatest player of NRL at the moment, his ability to stamp his signature on an entire team, both here and during Origin. Combined with the Townsville backdrop – the remotest NRL franchise – the Cowboys also feel like more of a stable than any other team, radiating the kind of comfortable, casual familiarity with each other – especially gentle giant James Tamou – that makes it easier to imagine them socialising – beningly – as a team than any other team in the competition. Mates of mine who’ve lived or worked in Townsville have told me that you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least a couple of players if you go out on the town, and that kind of feels right, since Thurston manages to imbue even the most brutal, uncompromising matches with a loose, casual, off-field vibe that makes NRL still feel like a grassroots sport, which to me is his peculiar genius. In one of the most punishing contact sports out there – and definitely the most punishing football code – he’s the relaxed player par excellence, and that gives him a unique grace and gravitas in the game, which he imparts to his team in turn.