Thurston reflects on his finest moments
THE Cowboys were on the canvas. Gone. It was only Round 4 of the 2015 season but, realistically, Johnathan Thurston's men were seconds away from watching their premiership hopes evaporate.
Down 23-16 in Townsville against defending premiers Melbourne, the Cowboys were staring at a fourth straight loss to begin the year.
History suggests it's impossible to lift the trophy from there. Enter Thurston, who delivered a few minutes of brilliance which eventually led to the Cowboys ending their title drought on his 11th attempt.
His grand final-clinching field goal a few months later is, understandably, more celebrated. But it was Thurston's twin one-pointers that night against the Storm that gave them a chance to make history.
When rival halfback Cooper Cronk kicked a field goal to give the visitors a 17-10 lead with nine minutes remaining, the Cowboys looked done.
As the clock ticked down to three minutes, Thurston passed to halves partner Michael Morgan, who put winger Matthew Wright over in the corner.
Renowned for lapping up pressure, Thurston booted the conversion from the right sideline to reduce the gap to one.
With 39 seconds left, Thurston booted a field goal from 25 metres out to send the match to golden point. In extra time, he slotted another from virtually the same spot to win the game, and revive the Cowboys' season.
Thurston's field goal which sunk Brisbane in the grand final later that year is clearly the most iconic moment of his club career. But it was that night against Melbourne where they found the belief they could pull off a fairytale.
Before his home farewell against Parramatta tonight, I asked the retiring champion what his favourite Townsville moments were.
The Storm revival, which kickstarted a 11-game winning streak, was at the forefront of his mind.
"That gave the group the self-belief we needed," Thurston said.
"We'd been in that position a lot throughout that season. I remember kicking a field goal against Canberra (in round 15) to win a game.
"We'd been in that position so much that year, but we played with a lot of patience. It didn't matter what the scoreboard or clock said, we knew we could win the game."
As we now know, that belief was critical in the Cowboys pulling off a miracle against Brisbane in one of the greatest grand finals of all time.
Down by four, Thurston stepped off his left foot to avoid an Adam Blair tackle, then palmed off Andrew McCullough. As he was tackled by Corey Parker, he offloaded to Morgan.
Morgan ran across field and flick-passed to an open Kyle Feldt, who scored in the corner as the fulltime siren sounded.
After taking what felt like an age to gather his breath, Thurston's potential match-winning conversion from the sideline slammed into the upright, and bounced away.
Thurston uttered some choice words unprintable in a newspaper. Having worked tirelessly since his arrival in Townsville in 2005 to secure the club a premiership, the agony would have got the best of mere mortals.
Not this Immortal-in-waiting.
It would have been easy for Thurston to panic. To cast his mind back to his first Cowboys season, where they were beaten by the Tigers in the decider.
"It (winning a premiership) is what I got brought to the club (from the Bulldogs) to do," Thurston said. "I thought it would have come a lot sooner, but that whole year was nuts.
"We were playing a really good brand of footy, and the self-belief in the team was like I'd never seen it before.
"You don't have time (to think about the 2005 decider) because you're just in the moment. You're not thinking about that; you're thinking about the task at hand, and what's required at that stage."
The patience Thurston and the Cowboys based the season on was no more prevalent than the golden point period of the grand final.
On two occasions after Ben Hunt's fateful dropped ball from the kick-off, Thurston could have got the jitters and attempted a field goal when the table wasn't set.
"We were just waiting for the right opportunity. We had a couple of opportunities in that set of six but having that patience helps," he said.
The man himself reeled off the spine-tingling moments which ensued like it happened yesterday.
"I got too much pressure from the scrum and I wasn't comfortable with having a shot, and putting us under the pump," Thurston said.
"Jase (Taumalolo) takes a hit-up and gets too close to the try line (where defenders have more time to put pressure on).
"I get Cootey (fullback Lachlan Coote) in place and throw the ball to him, but I see Hunt come at him and he runs across field and hits Kane (Linnett).
"We go two passes back to (James) Tamou and we're in perfect position. A quick play-the-ball, and there's no pressure.
"Once I hit it and look up, it's straight between the sticks.
"I think Cootey was the first guy I got to, and I jumped in his arms."
Thurston's farewell is the culmination of a roster overhaul at the Cowboys. They are equal last with the Eels before tonight's game, and the losers are likely to be wooden-spooners.
It adds to the pressure to perform, and ensure Thurston enjoys his lap of honour as a winner.
"We've got enough experienced players to make sure we keep a lid on it. There's going to be a lot of emotion (before the game) from outside our walls," Thurston said.
"Matt Scott is playing his 250th game for the club, which is a massive milestone, and Jake Granville 100 games.
"Obviously at the start of the year we didn't think we'd be in this position, but there's been a lot of factors that have made it like this.
"We haven't played anywhere near our best footy, and that's been the most disappointing part of it all."
But Thurston won't be remembered for this year. Four Dally M medals, two premierships, three Golden Boots, a Clive Churchill medal, 37 Origins for Queensland and 38 Tests for Australia will see to that.
"Since coming back from the shoulder reco (last year), I've chalked up 300 games and also become the most-capped Cowboy, which is a nice personal milestone," Thurston said.
"I've been copping a fair bit of flak from the boys about the farewell tour but it's been humbling the support I've had from other teams, and fans of other clubs. It'll be nice to walk out with the kids and have that last memory here (in Townsville)."
Cowboys players are sick and tired of being quizzed about the spoon battle. But after being touted as premiership favourites before the season began, it's the elephant in the room which can't be ignored.
A post-mortem on what has gone wrong will follow, but their immediate objective is ensuring the greatest Cowboy of all bows out the way he deserves.
"I think it's his personality (we'll miss) more than anything. He's a really great bloke to have around," Scott said.
"He's one of those blokes that just drags everyone along with him, whether he's kicking stones after a loss, celebrating after a win or looking forward to a big game. He still carries on like an 18-year-old in the gym, and is just a real joy to be around.
"He's fun, he's a bit of a character, and the place is definitely going to be a bit quieter without him.
"I know he's very content with what he's done in the game, but he knows it's coming to an end, and he's probably a bit sad about that."
That may well be the case. But for the Townsville fans, tonight shouldn't be considered a tearful goodbye. It's a chance to toast a champion. To celebrate a once-in-a-generation talent the likes of whom they won't have the privilege of watching up close again.