JOHNATHAN THURSTON, the world’s best rugby league player, seems utterly genuine when insisting Super League clubs probably would not want him.
Instantly, you understand how countless defenders have been conned by his trademark feint and dummy over the years; what a master of deception.
He may be nearly 33 but this is the only person in the sport’s history to win the ‘Golden Boot’, awarded to the game’s greatest player, three times.
Every club in Super League, and the Australian National Rugby League for that matter, would move heaven and earth to secure the magical stand-off.
It will not happen, though, as the question as to whether he ever fancies playing in Super League is almost rhetorical; Thurston is in love with North Queensland Cowboys, the club he has served with such distinction since 2005 and, at last, led to maiden Grand Final glory in October.
It is because of that dramatic win over Brisbane Broncos – man-of-the-match Thurston hit an upright with his touchline conversion attempt after a last-second try levelled the pulsating game but then slotted the match-winning drop goal in the first-golden point NRL Grand Final – that he is now in the UK ahead of tomorrow’s World Club Challenge against Super League champions Leeds Rhinos.
That game takes place at Headingley but it would be remiss to start anywhere other than that famous night in Sydney and arguably the greatest Grand Final in history. Does Thurston still run all that drama through his mind at all?
“Ha ha. It gives me goose-bumps thinking about it,” he says, before recounting the end-game moment of that first all-Queensland affair.
“Obviously when I missed that goal I was pretty shattered but the boys snapped me out of it pretty quickly. Then I had to turn my focus to golden point. Jimmy Tamou got us a real quick play-the-ball so I had a shot and it went straight through…”
Sounds pretty simple; no hint at the years of practice and discipline that make him the best at what he does.
Now, though, Thurston and the Cowboys are homing in on the World Club Challenge, something that not all Australian sides have seen as high on their agenda over the years given its regular staging on the other side of the globe and before their own season has even kicked off.
This crew, however, are intent on success, especially their leader, who needs the medal to complete a stunning clean sweep of major accolades.
The last time Thurston was on these shores was to inspire Australia to the 2013 World Cup, claiming man of the match in all four games in which he played.
He has won the Four Nations with the Kangaroos twice and then, of course, there is his remarkable record-breaking State of Origin feats.
The Brisbane-born player has played all 33 games since his 2005 Queensland debut, including the eight successive series wins over New South Wales.
With two Grand Finals – Thurston was in Canterbury’s 2004 Premiership-winning side – to his name, the World Club Challenge is the only absentee.
“It’d rank right up there with winning the Premiership if we do win,” admitted the player who sat out last week’s traditional Indigenous All Stars v World All Stars fixture.
“To be the best team in the world has a nice ring to it and I have prioritised this game.
“It was a tough decision to pull out of the All Stars but I spoke to the coach about it during the month before and he was very supportive of it and understood.
“I’m very proud of my heritage and indigenous culture so it was hard but this was a box I really wanted to tick and give myself every chance of doing that by preparing with the team for Leeds. We’re taking it seriously; it’s not a trial for us – it’s like round one and we’re here to win, for sure. I haven’t experienced it before so all the boys are looking forward to Sunday. They need to enjoy it as well, it’s an experience you’ll have for a lifetime.”
Thurston dismisses the notion that Leeds are primed for a downfall given they are bottom of Super League after their opening two rounds, including Sunday’s calamitous 56-12 loss at Widnes, and are beset by injuries.
“I wouldn’t be reading too much into way they’ve started their season,” he insisted.
“They are a quality club so we’re here to prepare best we can. We need to. We’re not going to take them lightly. Whoever they field, I’m sure will do a good job.”
He does concede, however, having never heard of Liam Sutcliffe, the 21-year-old stand-off he will face following former Leeds and England captain Kevin Sinfield’s departure, or Jordan Lilley, the 19-year-old half-back pressed into action following Danny McGuire’s untimely knee injury suffered in the opener against Warrington.
“I’ve heard they’re pretty young and inexperienced,” added Thurston. “In saying that, they’ve Rob Burrow who’s very experienced and he’ll get the boys around the park. He’s very sharp out of dummy half or wherever he plays. He can attack and hurt you. Defensively, we need to be strong. Leeds are a great club, great players. They’ll come out all guns firing.”
While Rhinos are missing a significant chunk of the side that defeated Wigan at Old Trafford in October – Sinfield’s fellow legends Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai both retired while McGuire, Carl Ablett and Tom Briscoe are all injured – the Cowboys have named the same 17 more than four months on.
Thurston believes that bodes well not only at a packed-out Headingley – “I’ve said to the boys when I’ve played here in an Australian jersey they are memories you’ll have for a lifetime; the crowd does really get into it and you need to enjoy that” – but for their return to Australia when they hope to successfully defend their inaugural title.
“I don’t think it’s been done before,” he said. “The last time a Grand Final winning club fielded the same team the next year was maybe in the Eighties. It’s very hard to win back-to-back titles.
“It’s not been done since 92-93, I think, with the Broncos. But we’re in a unique position where we have the same team from last year and we need to build on that.”
There was the arrival of another Australian this week to challenge the clamour for Thurston’s time and attention.
Wayne Bennett, the doyen of modern-day coaches, is here not only as Brisbane chief ahead of their game with Wigan tonight but also having recently been appointed England manager.
The 66-year-old’s recruitment displeased some but Thurston was fulsome in his praise of his fellow countryman.
With England being the No 3 side in the world for so long, asked if Bennett’s involvement might be the step that finally takes them to the top, he said: “Yeah, 100 per cent.
“He brings the best out of his players and, no doubt, a lot of English boys will now take their game to another level under him.
“I’m going to look forward to see how he goes at the end of the year. Hopefully, not too well but his record speaks for itself; he’s a once-in-a-lifetime coach.
“No doubt they are not too far off becoming the No 1 rugby league nation. Just hopefully not on my watch.”