Without a doubt, last night’s Grand Final was the greatest game of football I’ve ever seen, although for the first seventy-nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds it didn’t look as if it was going to turn out that way. For the most part, it was a fairly inauspicious match, with the Broncos putting in the pummelling defensive game you’d expect, and the Cowboys missing opportunity after opportunity to make a dent in their armour, despite some great set-ups and powerful pushes by James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo in particular. With Thurston fumbling the ball to Brisbane just before half-time, it felt as if the fate of the match was sealed. By the time the Cowboys came back on for the second half, they all looked exhausted, even defeated. For a moment, I wondered whether J.T. had been injured, so pale did he look, while even his gradual resurgence didn’t do anything to prevent a Broncos victory feeling like a fait accompli, especially in those last five minutes, when it felt as if both teams were just killing time in anticipation of what by that stage felt like an inevitability, another notch in Wayne Bennett’s belt.
Yet that all changed in the final second. One of the amazing things about watching sporting matches in real time is the way they manage to warp and distort your sense of time, intoxicating and disorienting you as much as the most potent drug cocktail. The only other place I’ve ever really experienced that level of suspense is in movies, and yet even suspenseful movies can be a bit diluted with exposure, whereas there’s something about the unrepeatability, unpredictability and sheer freakishness of a good real-time sporting match that makes you feel as if you’re discovering the experience of suspense for the first time. So it was with Kyle Feldt’s try in the final second of last night’s match, which seemed to balloon to fill more time than the whole previous eighty minutes put together, and suddenly made you feel as if you were in the middle of a completely different game from the one you walked in on. Watching it on television was amazing enough, but being there in person must have been electrifying. The closest I’ve seen to that kind of turnaround was the Tigers-Roosters Preliminary Final in 2010, but even that paled in comparison to last night’s twist.
In part, that was because of the sheer freakishness of Feldt’s try, and Michael Morgan’s flick pass that set it up. There’s an odd kind of body language that settles over two teams when it feels as if the victory is a foregone conclusion, something you often see in the last couple of seconds or last couple of minutes of a hard-fought battle. On the one hand, the dominating team tends to become more relaxed, elastic and confidence in their line, while the losing team starts to gradually dissociate as a team, and feel more like a collection of really, really tired players who just happen to be occupying the same part of the field. In those moments, the whole momentum of the game tends to dissolve, with the ball being tossed around willy-nilly, in desperation, and everyone playing more or less defensively. What made Morgan and Feldt’s setup so incredible was the way in which it managed to take that relaxed energy and use it to their advantage, burrowing their way into the Broncos’ blindspot so effortlessly that you only realised what was happening after it had happened. Scoring a try at the very corner of the line always feels somewhat serendipitous – another couple of centimetres and it would be out – but last night it felt miraculous, like the Cowboys had somehow managed to feel their way to the edge of Brisbane’s omniscience in a single strike. If it seemed as if the conclusion of the game had somehow already arrived in those last few minutes – I, for one, was already in a post-game slump – then the Feldt-Morgan try made it feel as if time had been reversed and we were watching something akin to an alternate universe or an alternate timeline in which the Cowboys had somehow managed to win after all.
If the try was incredible, though, the conversion was something else. When it comes to a Grand Final, it’s never just about the game – it’s about the backstory, the characters, the legacy. Each team goes into a Grand Final with their own hopes and dreams to fulfil, hopes and dreams that have often gestated for years, decades and even lifetimes. With Thurston and the Cowboys, those dreams run particularly deep. On the one hand, the Cowboys had never won a premiership until last night, despite the fact that they’ve been around for twenty-plus years, boasted some of the best players, and made it through to the Grand Final on numerous occasions. Add to that the fact that they have arguably the most devoted fanbase in the game, as well as the largest by region – North Queensland is bigger than even New Zealand in terms of square metres – and there was something exquisitely emotional about seeing Thurston square off the conversion needed to bring it home for this most mythical of teams.
On the other hand, Thurston himself has chased this moment for years. Sure, he was there for the Bulldogs’ win over the Roosters in the 2004 Grand Final, but he was there as a junior – if a prodigious junior – spending most of the time on the bench. Given his move to the Cowboys the following year, as well as how widely discredited Canterbury-Bankstown were in the wake of the sexual assault scandal, it never felt as if the victory belonged to Thurston, especially in the light of the Cowboys’ loss to the Tigers in the Grand Final the following year. While that was an incredible year for Tigers supporters – and I count myself among them – there was also a sense that this was the match Thurston should have won in order to consolidate his move from the Dogs to the Cowboys, as well as to consolidate North Queensland as a new and improved outfit under his stewardship as halfback. That loss to the Tigers cut deep – especially since Thurston is now the only player remaining from that 2005 Cowboys squad – and in interviews preceding this year’s final, J.T. frequently referred to it as the match that most haunts him up until this day. Seeing him setting up his conversion from the sidelines, then, ten years after that fateful match, was like watching a man contemplating his demons, an incredible moment for anyone who still recalls that iconic image of him crouched on the field in despair following the final siren in 2005.
And you could see all that written on Thurston’s face as he set himself up at the sideline. Normally, he’s fairly cool and collected with his conversions, putting in a few of his signature yawns, adjusting his headpiece and going for it without a second thought. But last night was different. Not only was the pressure of ten years – twenty-three years for the oldest Cowboys fans – mounting, but the angle was particularly difficult for a conversion, leading Thurston to examine the sightlines, juggle the ball, and do a few practice kickoffs in what has to be the most agonising three or four minutes of football I’ve ever experienced. And when he did finally kick…remember what I said about time slowing down in finals footy? For the first couple of seconds that the ball was in the air, it felt as if the Cowboys had won the match. You could see Thurston and Paul Green getting ready to celebrate, and hear the crowd starting to roar in anticipation. It was only when the ball was actually at the post – or within half a metre of the post – that things turned sour, with the Steeden bouncing off the inside edge and careening away from the try line. Two centimetres to the left and it would have missed the post entirely, one centimetre to the left and the angle of incidence would have turned it into the greatest conversion of all time. The minuscule margin of error that played to the Cowboys’ advantage in that final try worked against them for the subsequent conversion.
For footy fans, the couple of seconds during which that ball was arcing its way from Thurston’s boot to the ground was what the game is all about. That sudden movement from elation to despair – at least for a Cowboys fan – captured the visceral kernel of loving and following a team through thick and thin. That said, I don’t think you had to be a Cowboys fan to have felt dismay either, since by this stage any victory for Thurston is a victory for the game itself. Even the most dedicated Broncos fan would have to concede that Thurston didn’t deserve to go out that way. There are about a million reasons why I’m glad the Cowboys took it home, but one of them is the prospect of being haunted by that footage of Thurston and Green’s faces in slow-motion as exhilaration gave way, facial muscle by facial muscle, to disappointment. At that point, it felt as if Thurston effectively had won the game – what are the chances of a conversion hitting the inside of the post at exactly that angle under exactly that kind of pressure? – which made the prospect of continuing the game, let alone continuing the game under golden point pressure, even more intimidating.
And there may finally be no greater testament to Thurston’s consummate professionalism as a sportsman than the way in which he regrouped for those final three minutes. By all accounts, the Cows should have been celebrating on their way back to the sheds, but instead they found themselves in a kind of nightmare scenario in which the best chance was for Thurston to try and replicate that near-perfect kick with a field goal that in some ways seemed even more improbable, at least if the Broncos’ rousing defence over the course of the previous eighty minutes was anything to go by. From that perspective, Ben Hunt’s knock-on was pure serendipity, a gift from the Rugby League gods, putting possession back in the hands of the Cowboys and ensuring that it was only a matter of time before Thurston brought it home once again. Sure, it was hard on Hunt, but he’s a great halfback with his whole career ahead of him, and probably a couple of premierships in him as well, a player destined to go far. At 32, however, this felt like one of Thurston’s last chances – perhaps his last chance – at the Grand Final win needed to finally cement him as the world’s best player. I shudder to think how a Broncos victory would have felt after that missed conversion.
At the same time, Thurston’s disappointment in the 2005 Grand Final also put him in a unique position to appreciate and sympathise with Hunt’s grief, and it was touching to see him reserve one of his first post-match conversations for the sorry Brisbane halfback, assuring him – as was reported later – that he wasn’t to take the defeat on his own shoulders. It was the perfect capstone to Thurston’s victory, which felt all the most appropriate in that there was so much struggle along the way. If you had to condense J.T.’s battle to win a Grand Final – year after year, near-miss after near-miss – to a single game, this was it, in all its pain and glory. For Cowboys fans, it was like watching the last ten years condensed into ten minutes, as we waited on every second with baited breath to see whether fate would work against Thurston’s genius once again. And yet sometimes those kinds of disappointments just make a victory even more special, with even that unlucky conversion finally feeling fortuitous in the way that it played into that last epic field goal. In effect, you could say that Thurston won the game two times, cementing 2015 as Thurston’s year, with his multiple victory at the Dally M Awards – Provan-Summons, Player of the Year, Best Halfback, Best Captain – translating into something like a multiple Grand Final victory, a victory that seemed to unfold in several iterations and at several different levels.
Of course, that must have been something of an affront to the other great purveyor of multiple Grand Final victories at ANZ that night. For the first time in his sparkling career as coach, Wayne Bennett’s Grand Final team failed to take home the shield. As a result, Bennett was somewhat vocal about the legitimacy of a golden point Grand Final – as he has been for years – delivering his most emphatic argument in favour of a second round Grand Final yet. While I do understand his argument – there can be something quite arbitrary about a golden point – I also think that last night the victory really did feel legitimately as if it belonged to the Cowboys, despite the punishing game Brisbane had put in over the first half in particular. After all, the Broncos were never leading by that much, while Thurston’s missed conversion was no less chancey than Hunt’s knock-on. Sure, there’s something about winning a Grand Final with a field goal that’s not entirely true to the spirit of Rugby League, but at the same time it was so true to Thurston’s kicking game – and to the missed opportunity of that conversion – that in the end it felt like the right outcome as well, even if Bennett’s comments do conjure up the intriguing possibility of Grand Final draws, or Grand Final rematches.
Speaking of coaches, too, there was something fascinating about comparing how Bennett and Green responded to the suspense. Bennett has long been my favourite coach – almost my favourite League personality full stop – and his enigmatic introspection and mysterious communion with his players seemed to reach a new level last night, especially over the course of that second half and during those final few minutes. More than any other coach in the game, Bennett seems to impart mental resilience to his players, as well as a kind of procedural calm that was particularly evident in Sam Thaiday’s interview at half time. Something about seeing him lose with the Broncos, then, seemed to sever the dynasty of Fortress Suncorp that’s accrued over the last decade, and yet you wouldn’t know it from Bennett’s implacable insistence that it was a victory for the Broncos as much as for the Cowboys. By comparison, Paul Green was like an excited kid, running out on the field to hug players who were about two and a half times his height, throwing professional detachment to the wind to bask in the victory as a fan, rather than a coach. As much as Thurston, he felt like the very embodiment of the grassroots spirit that is Cowboys football, and the look on his face as he embraced Thurston felt like one of the quintessential NRL images of the last decade, outdoing even the iconic shot of Sam Burgess embracing Michael Maguire in the wake of last year’s Bunnies victory.
And for me, this ultimately felt like a greater Grand Final than the Rabbitohs’ win over the Bulldogs. In part, that may be because I’m a Bulldogs supporter. At the same time the stakes somehow felt higher last night as well. Sure, the Rabbitohs had gone longer than the Cowboys without a victory but, then again, the Cowboys had never had a victory. Add to that the first all-Queensland Grand Final in history – played in Sydney – as well as Thurston’s narrative – just last week Brad Fittler added his name to the list of greats who projected that J.T. needed at least one Grand Final under his belt to consummate his potential – and there was something singularly momentous about last night’s match. Seeing Thurston silhouetted against the field was like seeing a player going from greatness to immortality, and Rugby League rarely feels as timeless as in those last few moments, as the player we all know and love entered the annals of history before our very eyes, with a sublimity and sportsmanship that’s unrivalled in the game, in the Grand Final to end all Grand Finals.