Johnathan Thurston keeps the ball alive on the last play to set up the Cowboys’ thrilling finish during the 2015 NRL Grand Final. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Johnathan Thurston keeps the ball alive on the last play to set up the Cowboys’ thrilling finish during the 2015 NRL Grand Final. Picture: Phil Hillyard

History, JT and the best rivalry in rugby league

NORTH Queensland and Brisbane is an all-time rivalry that's still building before our eyes.

For the first decade of the Cowboys' existence, there was no reason to call this a rivalry at all. It's hard be a rival when one team beats the tar out of the other time and time again.

From 1995 to 2004, the Broncos won 14 of the 16 games between the two clubs, with the Cowboys only managing two draws.

The fans would faithfully pack out Townsville's Dairy Farmers Stadium in the desperate home that the poor, futile Cowboys could fluke their way to a win on the way to another bottom-of-the-table finish.

It took them seven years to finish outside the bottom four, eight years to win 10 games in a single year and nine to make the finals for the first time. In the same span, Brisbane won three grand finals and never missed the playoffs.

The Broncos were sleek, lucrative, powerful, and above all they were successful. The Cowboys were nothing by comparison. They had great crowds, passionate fans and that was it.

In 1999, 30,302 fans, still a record home crowd for North Queensland, crammed into the ground to watch the Broncos snatch a draw in the final seconds with a sideline conversation.

That was about as good as it got for North Queensland for some time.

 

Success against the Broncos was hard to come by in the Cowboys’ early days.
Success against the Broncos was hard to come by in the Cowboys’ early days.

 

Competing with the Broncos in Queensland just didn't seem viable. The battling first Gold Coast franchise had two wins over the Broncos in 14 attempts from 1988 to 1998. Even when they landed Wally Lewis it was only because Brisbane didn't want him anymore.

They were never true rivals, not really. They existed in a different world to the Broncos, as did the poor South Queensland Crushers, who were doomed from the start. North Queensland may as well have been on a different planet.

The Cowboys were an NRL backwater, shunted to the old delayed game of a Saturday night. Nobody cared what happened up there.

But slowly, agonisingly, the Cowboys built themselves into something. In 2004 their Round 24 clash with the Tigers, which they won to guarantee their first finals berth, was the first time the club had appeared on Channel 9 since their inaugural season in 1995.

A shock win over Canterbury a few weeks later in their first finals match paved the way for the club's ultimate test - a finals match against Brisbane.

Originally slated to be played in Sydney, the Broncos took the magninmous step of allowing the game to be shifted to Townsville. It was North Queensland's first home finals game and, after a 10-0 victory that only saw one try scored, the greatest moment in the club's history. A grand final berth proved a bridge too far, but it was the start of something.

 

Cowboys players celebrate their breakthrough win over the Broncos in 2004.
Cowboys players celebrate their breakthrough win over the Broncos in 2004.

 

It was into this environment that Johnathan Thurston walked, the young ex-Bulldog arriving at a club that was ready to become something more than it had been.

The history of the Cowboys was already being written. Having an arch rival helps a team and its supporters forge their own identity. It gives the fans an origin story they can latch on to.

That's what beating the Broncos gave North Queensland.

In 2003, their last regular season visit to Brisbane before that breakthrough triumph, the Queensland derby drew just 13,197 fans to the old ANZ Stadium.

For Round 1, 2005 - Thurston's Cowboys debut - 43,488 fans packed into Suncorp Stadium.

Since then just one of the 31 matches between the two has drawn less than 20,000 people. Every game they've played at Suncorp Stadium in that period has drawn more than 40,000. No other rivalry in the league draws as many fans this regularly, even ones that are almost a century older.

Thurston has played more games against the Broncos (32) than he has against any other team and over the first 11 years of his Cowboys career he had some great days against them, most notably a three-try, six-goal effort in Round 1 of 2006 when North Queensland whooped the Broncs 36-4 at Suncorp.

 

Johnathan Thurston makes a break against the Broncos in 2006.
Johnathan Thurston makes a break against the Broncos in 2006.

 

There were good days and bad, wins and losses, a rough stretch from 2008 to 2010 where the Broncos won five in a row and a dream run in 2012 where the Cowboys knocked them off three times in a single season, including in the finals.

It was good footy, good games, between two good rivals. But it was just one rivalry among many. It wasn't the stuff you'd tell your kids about.

The best parts of an athlete's career rarely come at the end. Greatness is a young man's game and defying age as well as the opposition is a rare feat.

A lot of great players have played great; to stand out in the biggest moments and dominate the highest levels even as time is slowly taking it's toll, that's a rare thing indeed.

But that's exactly what Thurston did, and he never did it better than he did against Brisbane. As his career was supposed to be winding down, his team went to new heights and they never, ever went higher than they did against Brisbane.

 

Johnathan Thurston has enjoyed his share of success against the Broncos. Picture: Peter Wallis
Johnathan Thurston has enjoyed his share of success against the Broncos. Picture: Peter Wallis

 

Since 2015, the rivalry between the two Queensland sides has gone from budding conflict that was beloved north of the border and enjoyed elsewhere to the best rivalry in rugby league in terms of the on-field action, drama and prestige.

The first was in the first week of the finals in 2015, where the Broncos escaped with a 16-12 win, and it has continued unabated.all the way through to their titanic 24-20 struggle earlier this season where again Brisbane held on.

A 10-point victory by Brisbane over the injury-ridden Cows late last year was the only time during that period that the margin between the two sides has been greater than six points.

There's been four games decided by a point, three games that went to golden point, two finals matches that went to extra time and one epic grand final.

More than any other of his dozens of achievements, apart from perhaps his State of Origin record, there has been no platform for greatness quite like Thurston's recent matches against Brisbane. As his career wound down, he bucked the trend and produced some of his greatest matches.

 

Johnathan Thurston has played 32 matches against the Broncos.
Johnathan Thurston has played 32 matches against the Broncos.

 

Take the three classics in 2016 alone, for example

In the first meeting, the grand final rematch at Suncorp Stadium, Thurston had a hand in two tries, banged over the equalising penalty goal in the final seconds from near the sideline and had a remarkable try disallowed in golden point before Brisbane landed a 21-20 victory.

Later that year, at home this time, Thurston helped overturn an 18-6 deficit and kicked the matchwinning field goal in the final minutes despite clearly carrying a hip injury.

Then came the piece de resistance, the masterpiece, perhaps the greatest game the two Queensland sides will ever play and certainly one of the best games of the NRL era.

In the second week of the finals, 12 years since that first Cowboys win, Brisbane travelled north again for a match that pushed the boundaries of fatigue and rugby league excellence.

Kalyn Ponga made his NRL debut. It was the last finals game Thurston would play at home and his second last ever.

It was not the best game Thurston ever played. There were other heroes on this day, with Jason Taumalolo and Michael Morgan starring. The game Taumalolo played that night is one of the best of any forward in recent years.

 

Johnathan Thurston runs the ball during a clash with the Broncos.
Johnathan Thurston runs the ball during a clash with the Broncos.

 

It's never been Thurston against the Broncos - but losing some of the credit is part and parcel of playing with an all-timer. As much as Morgan and Taumalolo and Jake Granville and Matt Scott and all the others contributed, when it got tight, real tight the game shrank down to Thurston. He kept the season alive with a sideline penalty in the 78th minute. Extra-time beckoned, again.

In the 84th minute, when even the fans watching at home were exhausted, Thurston took the line on. The young Thurston was known as a runner, his dummy was one of his greatest weapons. As time slowed him down that had to change, and distribution was his best weapon.

But here, now, as if rising from the past, Thurston dummied and ran from 20 metres out, dancing between Sam Thaiday and Anthony Milford. One half expected Matt Bowen to loom up on the inside. This was a Thurston play more suited to 2006.

But it happened, and Michael Morgan was there to accept the flick pass, score and give North Queensland a lead they would never relinquish.

 

Johnathan Thurston celebrates North Queensland’s finals win over the Broncos in 2016. Picture: Zak Simmonds
Johnathan Thurston celebrates North Queensland’s finals win over the Broncos in 2016. Picture: Zak Simmonds

 

Johnathan Thurston celebrates North Queensland’s finals win over the Broncos in 2016.
Johnathan Thurston celebrates North Queensland’s finals win over the Broncos in 2016.

 

The Cowboys won the battle but lost the war. Cronulla ripped them to shreds in the preliminary finalthe next week. Surely no North Queenslander could have minded too much. What more could the Cowboys have had to give?

Those three games would be enough to cement a rivalry, or a legacy, and we're yet to mention the golden point game from early last season when a battered North Queensland side looked like they were destined to lose, swaying and reeling like a boxer who's been knocked silly, until they somehow found a way to win in the 87th minute, or the finals match that started it all in 2015 when the Broncos snuck home in a track meet at Suncorp, or the latest chapter, earlier this year when Thurston turned on what might be the last classic individual performance of his career and a goalpost was all that denied Scott Bolton the matchwinner (off yet another brilliant Thurston pass).

Or the most momentous game of them all, when Thurston had perhaps his worst personal outing but his most momentous victory.

 

Johnathan Thurston kicks the winning field goal in the 2015 NRL Grand final.
Johnathan Thurston kicks the winning field goal in the 2015 NRL Grand final.

 

Johnathan Thurston celebrates winning the 2015 NRL Grand final. Picture. Phil Hillyard
Johnathan Thurston celebrates winning the 2015 NRL Grand final. Picture. Phil Hillyard

 

 

The tale of the 2015 grand final and the Shakespearean drama of the final five minutes and golden point is well known.

But that the match that changed Thurston's career, that ended the final knock - that he had never led a team to a premiership - came against Brisbane cannot be overlooked.

Before all this started, Thurston was already a legend. These games have helped him move to the next level, the level where only 13 players have gone before.

The 2018 Cowboys are trapped in a wooden spoon hell of their own making. Thurston is not the player he was. One more shoulder injury has done what so many opponents could not and finally beaten him.

He's still smart and still tries to do whatever it takes but his body won't let him anymore. But there's still time. There's still one more showdown with Brisbane.

When a player is in the position Thurston is in - on a march to the end with no fairytale possible - most of the time the things fans want is simple. They want one more time.

At home, where it all began and will end, against the team that became his greatest rival Thurston will try for one more time.

 

Johnathan Thurston of the Cowboys during the NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys. Pic Darren England
Johnathan Thurston of the Cowboys during the NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys. Pic Darren England


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