LEEDS RHINOS teenager Jordan Lilley has bought the same boots as Johnathan Thurston solely because he “saw him wearing them” while half-back partner Liam Sutcliffe freely admits he is in “awe” of the Australia legend they will each face tomorrow night.
Aged just 19 and 21, respectively, taking on the famous Kangaroo who has mastered the art of half-back play over the last decade, in a high-profile World Club Challenge at Headingley could easily cripple them.
Thurston, the co-captain of North Queensland Cowboys, received the ‘Golden Boot’ for a record third time on Thursday night, his position as the world’s greatest player confirmed yet again.
The 32-year-old is his country’s all-time highest Test points scorer, was man-of-the-match when they won the 2013 World Cup final, slotted the decisive drop goal to earn the Cowboys’ maiden Grand Final win last season and the State of Origin star is widely rated as one of the sport’s finest players in history.
But for all Lilley, who has played just six senior games, is thrilled to be taking on such a talent and likewise Sutcliffe, a comparative veteran having debuted almost three years ago, there appears no real nerves as they prepare for the significant challenge.
“He is one of my idols and I have the same boots as him – I bought them just because I saw him wearing them,” admitted Lilley, catapulted into this spectacle due to injuries to former England half-back Danny McGuire and Australian hooker Beau Falloon.
“He (Thurston) is someone I’ve looked up to and having got the call to play against him Sunday night it’s a battle I’ll really look forward to. You grow up dreaming of playing in games like these; it’s a real honour.
“Me and Sutty are both young. We want to prove ourselves and it’ll be good to go out with no pressure and show what we can do.
“It’s weird, too, as I was a ball-boy in one of Leeds’s World Club Challenges when I was younger.”
Sutcliffe, the long-term half-back replacement for Kevin Sinfield following the iconic Leeds captain’s switch to rugby union, is in the same position.
“In one of those World Club Challenges at Elland Road, I can’t quite remember if it was either Manly (2009) or Melbourne (2008/10), I was the ballboy, too, and just remember being freezing cold,” said the player who, like Lilley, hails from Leeds.
“I recall being glad I wasn’t out there playing, because it was too cold to be in shorts! I think it was snowing but coming into this environment now I’m just desperate to get out there and play in a game of this magnitude.
“Without a doubt I’m like Jordan – I grew up watching Thurston and just generally being in awe of him. If I’m watching an NRL game now that he’s playing in, I’ll still be amazed. I watch just to see how he plays and he’s someone you can look up to on and off the pitch but, hopefully, I can show him what I can do now.”
Although Lilley could play hooker with acting-captain Rob Burrow at No 7, the two tyros will, indeed, start together at half-back.
It will be a glimpse into the future for the West Yorkshire club but, at the same time, head coach Brian McDermott does not fear for either of his young talents.
They are both mature characters and have older heads than their tender years suggest, something elder statesmen will attest to given the manner in which both take control in the middle.
The duo have great mentors, too; Lilley was coached by ex-Great Britain half Burrow, the seven-time Grand Final winner, at Under-16s level, and Danny McGuire, the crocked 33-year-old who replaced Sinfield as captain this year, has been offering his insight all week.
“It’s weird as I’m 19 now so it wasn’t that long ago Rob was coaching me,” admitted Lilley.
“To now be playing with him, barking orders at him when I’m used to him telling me what I need to do to improve, is strange but always was a goal.
“I’ve a foot on the ladder and through injuries I’ve played some games. It’s about securing my place now by playing well, showing what I can do and, hopefully, getting the job done Sunday.
“It helps that I’m quite a confident lad. I’m quite confident in my ability. As I’ve come into the team Sutty’s helped me out and told me what I need to do. At half-back it’s pivotal that we are vocal otherwise orders don’t get out.
“The half-backs control the game and what happens if we don’t do that has a bearing on how the game goes.
“Yes, me and Sutty are young and there’s some players that are double our age playing. But it’s just about being confident.”
Of course, treble-winners Leeds are bottom of Super League after losing both their opening games, Sutcliffe still regaining his sharpness after a knee reconstruction that saw him miss both Wembley and Old Trafford last term.
Whatever happens tonight, though, the club’s long-term future looks in safe hands.