Johnathan Thurston is Australia’s scrum-half and one of the best players in the NRL. Canterbury Bulldogs were his first club but after tasting Grand Final glory there, the Queenslander moved nearer home to join up with Graham Murray’s Cowboys in Townsville. Since that move, Thurston has won the Dally M, the equivalent of Super League’s Man of Steel Award, and he has made the Queensland and Australia halfback positions his own. I spoke to him in 2007 for Rugby League World.
Johnathan, your career really took off in 2005 when you moved to the Cowboys but why didn’t things work out so well at the Bulldogs between 2002 and 2004?
They had some pretty lethal halves in Brent Sherwin and Braith Anasta and I couldn’t crack it with those two there. It was a tough decision to leave the Bulldogs because they gave me my initial opportunity but I’d play one week and then go back to reserve grade for three weeks and it was a little frustrating. I played in the 2004 Grand Final, my last game for them, but I missed 13 weeks that year with a knee injury and was in reserve grade for a lot too. They told me it would be good for me to stay but I wanted the regular first-grade slot. The Cowboys gave me that opportunity and I haven’t looked back.
So you went from a fringe player at Canterbury to winning the Dally M Award in 12 months. What can you attribute such a meteoric rise to?
The people I had around me. I had a good year in 2005 but it was still a learning curve for me. I made some good decisions I suppose and my preparations during the week were good. I joined the club at the right time as they were on the up and they had a very good playing roster. The Cowboys also gave me the chance to be more of a leader on the pitch, which is what I wanted.
Tell us about a couple of the players you admire.
Paul Bowman has played the most games for the club and he’s a real leader who I’ve taken a lot from. Luke O’Donnell is real professional in what he does. I really enjoy training and there’s a few larrikins here which is good.
How much has Graham Murray done for you?
He’s had a big influence on me and so have all the coaching staff. Billy Johnstone, who was the trainer here, did me the world of good, making me stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been and he deserves a lot of credit along with Muzz who gave me a leadership role when I first came here which I’ve become accustomed to. He’s taught me to be a little more patient and my kicking game has improved under him.
How proud were you to win the prestigious Dally M Award in your first year in North Queensland?
I was very proud. To be voted the best and fairest in the league is a pretty high achievement and I also won the Players’ Player Award based on the 3-2-1 system each week. That was up there too because it was voted for by my peers.
You also debuted for Queensland that year.
Yes, I made my Origin debut in a Golden Point win when Matt Bowen scored a try in extra-time. It went very fast and I remember thinking about the speed and intensity afterwards. It was mentally challenging but so rewarding as well. You have to be mentally and physically prepared because if you’re not then things can change in the blink of an eye.
You’ve now played five times for Australia as well, winning all five as you were rested for the only game Australia lost in 2006, against Great Britain.
Yes, the ANZAC Test was a real highlight with it being the last International Ben Kennedy and Andrew Johns played in and playing against the Poms in the Tri-Nations was a high too as I’d never done that before. They were big and strong and I really enjoyed playing against them. Things can only get better in the next few years especially with the World Cup coming up in 2008. At first I was a bit overrawed to be in the camp but I was made to feel welcome by the boys and after a week or so I felt pretty comfortable and I’ve started to form a pretty lethal partnership with Locky. I was pissed off to miss the first game with Great Britain though but those things happen and they make you a better person. You realise you can’t become complacent when you get these opportunities because you can lose them in the blink of an eye. When I got back in, I really wanted to make the most of it and winning the Tri-Nations was fantastic.
You made a magnificent start to the season beating the Broncos in Round One. What are your aims for 2007 with the Cowboys?
We’ve got a side good enough to play semi-final football and I’d be pretty disappointed if we didn’t make it. We have the side to be a force in the final but we have to take our chances and keep all of our players fit. Last year between us, we missed out on 100 weeks of football due to injury and the Grand Final sides only missed 30. Keeping your players on the field will play a big part.
Will the club struggle again during the State of Origin series, especially with Graham Murray coaching the New South Wales team?
We struggled a bit last year after the Origin but Ian Millward is here as assistant coach and brings a lot to the coach. The players that do step up have to take their chance and the regular first graders who aren’t in Origin have to take more of a leadership role. We can learn from last year and rectify it if that happens.
Who did you support as a child?
My mum was a big Raiders fan so I followed her in that. My favourite players were Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley and Ricky Stuart and I’ve had a bit to do with Mal and Ricky in the last couple of years with them coaching Queensland and Australia so that’s been exciting.
Who’s the toughest opponent you’ve faced?
Johns or Locky. They’re so switched on and if you take your mind off the game for a couple of seconds they can really find you out.