This Friday will feature the grand final rematch, as the defending premiers, the Melbourne Storm, travel north to Townsville to take on last year’s runners-up, the Cowboys. It is fair to say that neither team has consistently been in the form that saw them reach the decider last year. The Storm currently sit in sixth place with a record of six wins and five losses, whereas the Cowboys have endured a significant amount of disappointments this year, finding themselves with three wins and eight losses, to be second last on the ladder.
As well as both teams being desperate for a victory for different reasons, this grand final rematch has another air of significance about it. With the Cowboys’ co-captain Johnathan Thurston to retire at the conclusion of the season, there is every chance that this could be his final clash against the Storm, which features good mate Cameron Smith. JT and Smithy have been very good mates since childhood, and although they have not played in the same team at club level, they have experienced a multitude of success together, particularly at representative level.
However, let’s rewind back to their junior rugby league days. Both JT and Smith grew up in suburban Brisbane and were as hungry as any of their rivals for a shot at the big stage. The way both men had made it to the big time was very different, however, as I will endeavour to highlight their formative years. JT had been born with a spirit that overrode his rather minuscule frame, whereas Smith had rugby league ingrained in his DNA, due to his father’s standing in the Brisbane Rugby League competition.
Sunnybank, Logan and the start of something great
JT would play for his local junior team, Souths Sunnybank, while Smithy would play for Logan Brothers, his junior team. And more often than not, it would be Smith’s Logan Brothers team would emerge as victors whenever they were up against Thurston’s Souths Sunnybank. As such, Smith’s ascent into the big time tended to come at the expense of pint-sized Johnathan Thurston. Yet despite the obvious disappointments experienced by JT, there were never any fisticuffs between him and Smithy. The aforementioned sentence depicts the differing characteristics between the two. Whilst Smithy exudes an aura of cool-headedness and composure, JT had the tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve.
Interesting enough, it was in 2001 when their friendship would really take off. Both Smith and JT would be selected for the Junior Kangaroos that year and they discovered that they had a similar sense of humour. And of course their friendship had reached its height when they made the representative stage. As well as being ultra-competitive on the field, their respective competitive streaks would transcend off it, onto the golf course and into the virtual world.
But as for their achievements in the game, well that is the envy of many. Smith would make his State of Origin debut in 2003, while Thurston would make his debut two years later. They would have their first taste of success in Origin in 2006 and would win ten of the next eleven series for Queensland. They would also go on to be mainstays for the Maroons, as Smith would only miss one match between his debut and his sudden recent retirement, while JT would miss two matches between his debut and his retirement last year. It was a shoulder injury that would prevent JT from playing in his farewell match. However, Queensland supporters will always remember his final act for the Maroons to kick the match-winning goal in game 2 in 2017, thereby breaking the hearts of NSW fans.
With that shoulder injury, however, JT was deprived of an opportunity to play in his well-deserved Origin farewell match. Despite this, he was given a sensational and emotional farewell prior to the deciding match. But in a true act of humility and friendship from Smith, having been presented the Origin shield, he would call up good mate JT to lift the shield with him. It was quite fitting when you consider the amount they shared together since their junior days. As for the amount of games they would play for the Maroons, Smith concludes as the most capped Maroon with over 40 games, while JT is not too far off, with just under 40 games. Both would alternate between goal-kicking duties.
Green and Gold dreams
With regards to their representative careers at national level, both would make their national debuts in 2006, and would be mainstays for the Australian team. And similar to Origin, both would alternate between goal-kicking duties. Whilst they would both experience some disappointments such as a few lost Four Nations tournaments and the lost World Cup in 2008, their triumphs would far outweigh these disappointments. They would win the 2006 Tri-Nations tournament, as well as the Four Nations tournaments of 2009, 2011 and 2016, as well as, more significantly, the 2013 World Cup, where JT would finish the tournament as the leading point scorer, while Smith was the skipper.
Unfortunately, JT was unable to 2017 World Cup due to his season-ending shoulder injury, but no doubt that his influence was telling. Moreover, they would both be recipients of the Golden Boot award, as the best player in the world. Therefore, it’s almost safe to say their achievements at representative level is quite parallel.
As for their achievements at club level, whilst they never played for the same club, their respective achievements are both substantial and enviable. Both were nominated for a place in the Dally-M team of the year on numerous occasions in their respective positions, and would be recipients of the Dally-M player of the year, as well as multiple premiership winners. JT would win a record four Dally-M medals, whereas Smith would win the medal twice. Smith would win the premiership with the Storm in 2012 and 2017 (as well as in 2007 and 2009 - both of which would later be stripped due to salary cap breaches by the Storm), while JT would win the premiership as an interchange for the Bulldogs in 2004, and most famously in 2015, where he would boot the Cowboys to a thrilling victory.
Moreover, both would experience World Club Challenge glory for their respective teams. The only thing that Smithy has experienced that JT has not is the feeling of winning a minor premiership. Smith has won the minor premiership with the Storm on six occasions (three of which were later stripped), while JT has never won the minor premiership with either the Bulldogs or Cowboys.
As well as their respective club level achievements, their friendship is evident before and after each game where their respective sides are locking horns. Prior to the match, fans would likely see the two shaking hands and embracing while offering words of encouragement to each other. This would be even more apparent at the end of the match, as they would be spotted engrossed in conversation. Even during the battle, the tremendous respect would be apparent between the two. One such example includes the following: In the 2015 preliminary final, when Cameron Smith was lining up a shot at goal, he was being prevented by the distraction of seagulls. Who should chase the seagulls away to allow him a clear shot at goal? Well none other than good mate, Johnathan Thurston, as he did just that, much to the delight and amusement of everyone present.
Had JT not have suffered that unfortunate serious shoulder injury last year, we would have seen them lock horns in last year’s decider, given their respective sides were the teams who made it to the grand final. And even though the Storm ran out comfortable winners, Smith and his teammates could be seen interacting with JT and his teammates, such is the respect and brotherhood between the boys from Queensland.
Therefore, whilst there have been some players who have often had to come up against a good mate from an opposing team, we can say that JT and Smithy share both a special rivalry and camaraderie that is second to none. It’s a true shame that they won’t be battling each other on the field after this season, but let’s not forget the decade of extraordinary success these two have accomplished for themselves and with each other.
What are your best memories from the careers of Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith? Let us know in the comments below.