In many ways, Johnathan Thurston is the legend of the current NRL lineup. On the one hand, he’s regularly cited as being the best halfback in the world, if not the best Rugby League player in the world. At the same time, he’s been a critical ingredient in arguably the greatest Maroons squad to date. If he doesn’t quite feel part of the triumvirate that is Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, then that’s only because he doesn’t need anyone else to help him embody what it is that Origin stands for. Even Greg Inglis can’t quite summarise the spirit of the Maroons in a single stance like Thurston, who seems to be supervising the game from afar even at his most kinetically and viscerally involved.
And yet while Thurston may well be the most prestigious player in the game, he’s the very opposite of a prestige player. While luminaries at his level tend to move from team to team – or code to code – in search of better star vehicles, Thurston has been with the Cowboys for the last decade. On top of that, he’s skippered them since 2007, making him the NRL’s longest-standing captain. Of course, it’s not uncommon for big-name players to stick with a single club. When they do, though, their decision to remain is often dramatised as much as if they’d actually decided to cast their lot in with another team. Think of DCE’s decision to remain at Fortress Brookdale or Billy Slater’s more recent decision to remain with the Melbourne Storm. Both decisions were made under completely different circumstances, but what they shared was the sense that Slater and DCE had done something more active and dramatic than simply remain.
In the case of Thurston, though, there’s never been any sense of drama surrounding his decision to remain with North Queensland. In part, that’s because the Cowboys are probably the quintessential low-drama team. Add to that their relative remoteness – further from Sydney than Auckland – and they tend to rack up longterm players as a matter of course. While Thurston may have started his career with the Bulldogs, then, there’s something about the sensibility of the Cowboys that often makes him feel like the quintessential one-team player. In fact, by all accounts Thurston wanted to spend his entire career at Canterbury-Bankstown, despite receiving offers from North Queensland from his earliest days, but found himself shunted during the rearrangements that occurred in the light of the 2004 assault scandal. And in a way, Thurston has been playing vicariously for the Dogs ever since, with the only real speculations about his possible movement tending to revolve around whether he might make a transition back to Belmore at some point. Yet while the Dogs, at least in their current incarnation, make a fine backdrop for Thurston’s low-key, low-drama genius, he’s grown into Townsville so naturally that it just wouldn’t feel right to see him anywhere else.
Still, Canterbury-Bankstown feels like a part of Thurston’s sensibility as well. Whatever you think of them – and I’m a supporter – you’d have to concede that the Dogs are the local NRL team par excellence. Few venues are so tied to their local fanbase as Belmore Oval, while few fans are so rabid in their devotion to a team – sometimes to a fault. At the same time, the Cowboys are the parochial team par excellence: what the Dogs are to the city, the Cowboys are to the country. As I’ll discuss in an upcoming post on Canterbury-Bankstown, it’s no coincidence that this most homegrown of clubs actually started as a somewhat rural outfit back when the boundaries of Sydney were far more contracted than they are today. For a while, the CB abbreviation earned them the nickname of the Country Bumpkins, until they were rebranded more emphatically as the Bulldogs in the 1980s. And if that rural spirit still persists in any contemporary team besides Canterbury-Bankstown, it’s in the Cowboys, who often feel like the outfit in which NRL and CRL converge most completely. Sure, there are other non-urban teams, but none of them feel quite so country as North Queensland: Newcastle is too industrial, Canberra is too urban, while the Gold Coast and St. George Illawarra are too diffuse in their catchment areas.
Yet despite having been around for over twenty years and sourcing players from both Brisbane and Sydney, the Cowboys still manage to feel like your classic country Rugby League team, just as 1300Smiles Stadium still feels like the kind of footy field that’s used by school kids and local teams during off peak times, which perhaps explains why so many of my country friends support North Queensland despite hailing from New South Wales. Granted, there’s a bit of a rural spirit to Queensland Rugby League generally, with even the Broncos feeling like a somewhat rural outfit at their most relaxed and elastic. But the Cowboys take that spirit to its extreme, with the result that Thurston, as the figurehead of North Queensland, is something of a mascot for the parochial, local, grassroots spirit of the game as well. And that’s something of an anomaly for such a major League superstar, since most other players operating at Thurston’s level tend to cultivate a global profile, whether by gravitating towards international codes and teams, or at least aligning themselves with NRL franchises – like the Storm or the Roosters – that cultivate more of an international cache, thanks to their financial resources, marketing infrastructure and brand management.
Of course, Thurston has had his fair share of international experiences too, having played for the Kangaroos nearly as long as he’s played for the Cowboys. Man of the Match at the Rugby World Cup in 2013, he also received the Rugby League International Foundation’s medal for Halfback of the year in both 2009 and 2011, as well as Fullback of the year in 2007, an incredible crossover achievement on such a global scale. When it comes to Origin, his record is even better. Not only is he the sole player in the current Maroons dream team who hasn’t missed a game since their inception in 2005 – the ultimate one-team player – but he’s the greatest Orgin try-scorer of all time, begging the question of why he’s only been named Man of the Match in five Origin games. In years to come, you have to wonder whether the Origin Team of the Century will simply be the current lineup, in which case Thurston will also be the Origin Player of the Century.
And despite countless other achievements, it’s Origin that really brings out Thurston’s appeal. On the one hand, Origin is the ultimate bid for international credibility on the part of the NRL. While it may not always be directly articulated as such, Origin sets out to be a global sporting event, a phenomenon on the scale of the Super Bowl. In breakdowns of Australian tourist destinations, what often lets down Sydney and Brisbane in comparison to Melbourne is the absence of an internationally recognised sporting event along the lines of the Australian Open, and you can’t help feeling that Origin is somehow meant to compensate for that, perhaps explaining the controversy over staging Origin in Melbourne, with even Billy Slater coming out and conceding that one game every three years at AAMI Stadium is probably more than enough. At the same time, Origin is also one of the most local events in the game, excluding international players by definition, or at least those international players who haven’t commenced their career in Queensland or New South Wales. Sometimes it feels as if Rugby League takes place on two totally different scales – a global scale in which teams like England, Fiji and Tonga are key contenders, and a local scale in which there’s only Queensland and New South Wales –leading to mounting speculation about whether Origin should be opened up to represent the full breadth of the current NRL, let alone the international Rugby League community.
Whether or not that happens, there’s something about Origin as it now stands that encapsulates something of the dissonance between League as a grassroots, homegrown, small-scale sport and League as a multi-million-dollar corporate spectacle. For games like Union and AFL, that dissonance is less pronounced, just because they often seem to source their players from a more boutique environment in the first place. When it comes to Origin, though, we’re faced with all the contradictions of a sport that wants to make more of a name for itself on the global arena but also doesn’t want to lose the precious local fanbases that are so denuded in Australian Rugby Union in particular. And in some ways that’s what makes Origin so fascinating to watch, as fringe figures like Greg Bird or Nate Myles suddenly find themselves on a global playing-field that makes Suncorp or AAMI or Allianz feel momentarily as expansive as AT&T Stadium or Old Trafford.
Perhaps Thurston’s ultimate appeal then, is the way in which he encapsulates the spirit of Origin, which is also the spirit of the game itself. For my money, there’s no player in the current game – not even Hayne, SBW or Slater – who’s as talented and on point as Thurston. And yet there’s no NRL celebrity who’s so relaxed in his international profile either. Watching a player like Thurston command the Maroons is like witnessing a kind of ideal tipping-point where global stature and local affiliation converge without compromising each other, which is not to say that his persona is streamlined but that he manages to encapsulate the tensions of the game – and translate them into his game – more elegantly than just about any other footy legend out there. Even when he’s being cheered on by thousands of fans and watched by millions of viewers, there’s still something slightly unkempt, spontaneous and down to earth about his appearance, light years away from the studied, self-seriousness of a SBW or a Hayne. Whether it’s the kookaburra laugh in post-game interviews or the distinctive scowl he makes before going in for a kick – two sides of the same coin – there’s something spectacular about the way his personality manages to expand out to the very limits of international Rugby League without jettisoning itself from his roots as well. When most Maroons players put on the Queensland jersey, they’re nothing but Maroons players, but Thurston also feels like a Cowboys player too, as well as a Bulldogs player somewhere underneath it all – and that tension between global prestige and local dynamism is what makes him such a powerhouse to watch, at least for me.
With a player like Thurston, there’s always more you can say, and I’ve realised that I’ve got to the end of this without even talking about his indigenous advocacy, or about the Cowboys themselves – and Thurston as their skipper – as the sole team not to cave under salary cap scandal, even if it’s not entirely clear that they were in the clear either. Similarly, Thurston’s intense charisma and dedication to his team makes him particularly good at developing strong footy friendships, and you could write a whole article about his rapport with Tamou, Bowen, Scott, O’Donnell or pretty much any other player who’s been part of his stable. Stay posted, then, for more on this greatest of players. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a Canterbury-Bankstown supporter, but that also makes me a Thurston supporter, as well as a Cowboys supporter. And whoever you support, you’d have to concede that Thurston’s Cowboys are one of the most likeable teams in the game, charismatic and compelling as their brilliant captain.