While it was disappointing to have Johnathan Thurston out for both the Auckland Nines and the Indigenous v All Stars clash, it was more than worth the wait to see him make his 2016 debut in the World Club Challenge last night, where he led the Cowboys to a rousing 38-4 victory over the reigning Super League champions at Headingley Stadium. Ever since his incredible Grand Final victory last year, NRL fans have been desperate to see Thurston back on the field, with the expectation reaching such a fever pitch over the course of the pre-season that I’ve started to wonder how JT’s first appearance could live up to the hype. In many ways, however, last night’s match was the perfect venue, to the point where I was almost relieved, in retrospect, that he’d been out for the Nines and the Indigenous v All Stars, if only because it gave him the chance to shine as brightly and as definitively as he did against the Rhinos. In part, that’s because, by definition, the World Club Series plays as a kind of continuation of the previous NRL and Super League Finals, with the two reigning teams traditionally going neck and neck. While that format has been expanded over the last couple of years to the World Club Challenge, allowing a further four finalists into the competition – two from the NRL, two from the Super League – the effect hasn’t been to dilute the finals atmosphere of the competition but to instead intensify the frenzied sense of finals fever, and to condense the hyperactive weeks that usually precede a Grand Final into a mere weekend.
Part of what makes the World Club Challenge so powerful is that it unites two Rugby League competitions whose seasons almost exactly coincide. For both the NRL and Super League, the World Club Challenge comes right at the end of the pre-season, and so forms an important moment of continuity between the previous year’s Grand Final and the beginning of the following year’s official season. In effect, you could say that the World Club Challenge launches the NRL and SL seasons by giving us a replay and recapitulation of the previous year’s Grand Final, which can either intensify or diminish the victory and legacy of the current winners, depending on how their team has fared over the course of the off-season and pre-season. For the first time in World Club Challenge history, however, North Queensland fielded exactly the same team for the Challenge as for their Grand Final – the exact same seventeen players – meaning that this literally felt like a Grand Final rematch more than any other Challenge in history. Given that some Broncos fans – as well as some opponents of the use of Golden Point in Grand Finals – had in fact called for a replay in the wake of Thurston’s field goal that sealed the deal for the Cowboys last year, there was a lot riding on last night’s game in terms of the North Queensland legacy, especially since the Broncos had put in a bone-shattering effort against the Wigan Warriors the night before.
All of which meant that Thurston was in a position to effectively consolidate the achievement of the 2015 Grand Final – and remove that sense of nagging sense of doubt that always accompanies a Golden Point victory – if only he played his cards right. The stakes were even higher in that a World Club win was about the only Rugby League glory that Thurston hadn’t yet achieved, quite an extraordinary exception for a player who was given his third Golden Boot a couple of days before. Nevertheless, for the first half of the match the Cowboys were by no means the clear victors, going head and head with Leeds to reach a 4-all stalemate at halftime. Sure, there were some moments of inspiration – such as Thurston’s beautiful pass to Michael Morgan – that had last year’s Grand Final written all over them, but for the most part the first half was a fairly even game. For that very reason, however, it was possibly the most memorable part of the match, just because that kind of equality on the field is quite rare in World Club Challenge, with one team or another tending to sweep the other off the field. In an overall tournament in which the aggregate score was 118-28, there was something quite novel about seeing two world class teams slogging it out for a couple points, as well as something that gets to the heart of what World Club Challenge is all about.
Adding to the excitement of the first half were the adverse weather conditions – a combination of high winds, heavy rains and low temperatures that created a wintry atmosphere that was way beyond even the most inhospitable of NRL matches. As the northernmost team in the competition, the Cowboys have had to learn to train under fairly hot, humid and demanding weather conditions, and there was something about their lithe, limber movement over the first half that showed just how much of an edge that tropical training can give you when you shed the layers of humidity for a cooler climate. While that admittedly may not have been quite enough to ensure their supremacy, at least not in this first half, it did allow them to keep up with a team who were more used to British weather, as well as a team who were dealing with their own weather on their home ground. During the second half, the weather played just as important a role, since while the rain and wind may have abated, it turned the field into something of a bog – again, much marshier than we’re used to in Australia – that gave the play a dirtier, more desperate kind of feel, until it was a bit like watching Origin, especially when James Tamou got downed by a single punch from Leeds prop Mitch Garbutt during a twelve-man biff in the last ten minutes. Combined with Tamou’s slap on Keith Galloway – Blue against Blue – it felt as if a brawl of truly Origin proportions was on the cards, and while it might not quite have eventuated, the spectacle of Tamou being sent off the field with blood gushing from his nose is such an iconic part of Origin that it couldn’t help but make you feel as if the weather had somehow morphed Headingley into Suncorp, and the Cowboys were playing on Maroons home turf.
Nevertheless, it was the second half of the game where the Cows really shone, as well as where Thurston made his mark. Scoring six tries in forty minutes – and two in the first ten minutes – the Cowboys made a definitive resurgence, with Thurston himself instrumental in most of the big plays and scoring a try himself in the 65th minute. With Justin O’Neill sealing the deal with tries in both the 69th and 76th minutes, the second half seemed to accelerate into the last-minute frenzy of last year’s Grand Final. Where Thurston’s moments of brilliance against the Broncos had been punctuated by moments of exhaustion and anguish, here he was poetry in motion throughout the entire second half – an exemplar for Rugby League brilliance that made him the only contender for Man of the Match. In that sense, the Cowboys v Rhinos game was the ultimate riposte to footy fans who felt that the Cows had only won last year’s Grand Final on a technicality. Once again, they wiped the field, and in an even more definitive manner than the first time around. With that kind of Grand Final behind him, it was inevitable that Thurston’s next game would always feel like a continuation of it in some way, and it was wonderful to see it as beautifully consummated and completed as it was in last night’s match, taking some of the pressure off JT for Round 1 and leaving him free for a fresh start to the 2016 Cowboys season. Go Cows!