2017. Game Two. Two minutes remaining. ANZ Stadium. Eastern sideline. 16-16.
A battered and bruised Johnathan Thurston lines up a shot at goal. His left arm hanging limply by his side as it has for most of the match.
He moves in and strikes the ball. It starts outside the right hand upright but then the familiar Thurston hook kicks in and it sails between the sticks.
Queensland 18 – 16 New South Wales.
It will be the final score of the match and the final scoring play Thurston will ever make in the Origin arena. For a man who was once deemed too scrawny to make junior representative sides or be accepted into the Brisbane Broncos development system, he had once again etched his name into the record books.
Throughout his Origin career, the North Queensland Cowboys talisman was the beating heart of the Maroons.
Sure, there was Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis. But it was Thurston who added that little something extra. An intangible drive, an insatiable will to win and a little magic.
Cronk, Slater, Smith, they were a little like Dexter Morgan. They were cool, calm and collected. They had the room covered in drop sheets and the Blues on the table before they knew what had happened.
Thurston was more your axe wielding Patrick Bateman. He butchered oppositions. Eyes wild, veins bulging, blood pumping. He was all energy.
And Origin suits energy.
It’s incredible the impact Thurston had on the Maroons considering he was constantly surrounded by legends.
When he debuted, he did so alongside Darren Lockyer.
Then along came the big four.
But Thurston was always the man most feared. The type of player to inspire a 20 point comeback in 10 minutes. The type of player who would be there to drive that final nail in the coffin just like he did in his last Origin game.
Debutant Match Winner
Thurston entered the Origin arena following his first premiership with the Bulldogs in 2004. By 2005 he had made the move to North Queensland and taken over the number seven jersey.
He partnered the legendary Darren Lockyer at the Maroons scrumbase for game one of the 2005 series.
Queensland were desperately trying to halt a massive NSW dynasty. The early 2000s had been good to the Blues. Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns had led the Blues to plenty of series wins, and embarrassed the Maroons in 2001 with a 56-16 win in game three.
Fittler had rolled out of representative retirement in 2004 to lead NSW to a series victory and ride off into the sunset.
With 2005 came a renewed sense of optimism for Queensland. Fittler was properly retired this time and Andrew Johns had hardly played the previous season while being injured for game one.
2004 had seen Wests Tigers halfback Scott Prince wear the number seven for the Maroons but following the series loss, Queensland selectors went looking for new blood.
Thurston had begun knocking on the door of the Queensland selectors from the start of the 2005 season as he established himself as a starting halfback.
By the time Origin rolled around, Thurston had all but put on the Queensland jersey.
One of the great State of Origin careers was about to begin.
Game One of the series was held in Brisbane at the cauldron of Suncorp Stadium.
The Maroons skipped away to an early 19-0 lead before the Blues came roaring back to lead 20-19 inside the final 10 minutes.
With Darren Lockyer failing in two attempts to bring the scores level, it was up to the Origin debutant to land the match-tying field goal, sending the game to golden point. And he did it with a suspected broken hand.
The game would be remembered for Matt Bowen swooping on an errant Brett Kimmorley pass to steal with win, but without Thurston’s field goal in the 78th minute, none of that would have been possible.
The Origin debutant was also voted players’ player by his Queensland teammates at the end of the match.
However, Thurston’s Origin joy would be short-lived.
He was the young lion, challenging the Origin Alpha in his own arena.
Andrew Johns was coming to the end of his career. He had undertaken an intensive rehabilitation regime after breaking his jaw early in the season and now an SOS came from NSW coach Ricky Stuart.
The old lion would roar once more, and leave an indelible mark on his younger counterpart.
There was little Thurston or anyone from Queensland could do as Johns tore the series apart in games two and three of the series.
Joey had returned and laid down the marker against which all future Origin performances would be judged, while Thurston had been given a front row seat to greatness.
Breaking the Drought
While 2005 may have been a false dawn, 2006 was nothing of the sort. Johns would not be returning to once again haunt Queensland and the dial was about to tip heavily towards the Maroons.
Thurston grew into his position throughout the series. He once again partnered Lockyer in the halves and orchestrated a come from behind series victory after NSW took a 1-0 series lead.
Lockyer put the icing on the cake when he pounced on an errant pass from Brett Hodgson in game three to seal the match and the series.
Thurston finished the series as the top point scorer, setting himself on the way to being one of the great Origin point scoring machines.
And if 2006 was breaking the drought, then 2007 was the “start of a dynasty” according to Maroons legend Paul Vautin.
It was in this series Thurston really established himself as an Origin player. He collected the man of the match award in game one of the series and led Queensland to a 2-1 win.
The man dubbed “JT” was quickly establishing himself as a permanent figure in the Maroon number seven.
2008 saw Thurston having to play without the guiding hand of Lockyer as the Broncos legend struggled with injury throughout the year.
Game one saw Broncos fullback Karmichael Hunt partner Thurston in the halves. With NSW winning that match, it wasn’t going to be a long-term solution for Queensland selectors.
Instead, games two and three saw Thurston shifted into five-eighth and Scott Prince recalled to the halfback position for the first time since 2004.
It was the first time he would play in the six for Queensland. After comprehensively dominating game two of the series, game three would be an arm wrestle until Thurston sliced through with his trademark dummy and sent Billy Slater on his way to seal the series and a threepeat in the 67th minute.
Perhaps the most damage in this game wasn’t just done to the state of New South Wales, but to a young Blues halfback by the name of Mitchell Pearce who was thrown to the lions in the 2008 decider.
Thurston was once the young half, caught in the midst of a dominant position. This time he was the one doing the punishing and teaching his younger opponent and Origin lesson.
Establishing the Dynasty
Following 2008, Queensland quickly found themselves staring down the barrel of creating history thanks to Thurston.
The halfback’s man of the match winning performance during game one of the 2009 series put the Maroons in prime position to collect their fourth consecutive series win, and they did just that in game two.
In 2010 Thurston was at it again, winning the man of the match award in the first game of the series before Queensland made it five in a row after winning game two.
Throughout this period, Thurston had gone from the junior member of the spine to being a dominant part of it.
He had grown into his position and become one of the key tormentors of the Blues. Outside the Origin arena he’d nailed down his position as Australian halfback, while become the talisman for the Cowboys.
And as his star continued to rise, one particular Queensland star was about to be extinguished.
Following the 2010 whitewash, the Maroons headed into the 2011 series with captain Darren Lockyer announcing his retirement from Origin football.
The Broncos legend had been almost constantly alongside Thurston at the scrum base and the loss of the man who kickstarted the dynasty could very well have presented the opportunity the Blues needed to wrest the Shield back south of the Tweed.
In true Queensland fashion, Lockyer was waved out of the Origin arena with the Shield clasped firmly in his hands.
The series had been owned by Cameron Smith, who collected two man of the match awards and the Wally Lewis Medal, although Thurston once again played his part on the point scoring side of things.
A New Partner
The arrival of Cooper Cronk saw Thurston shift into the number six jersey once again, and effectively remain there for the rest of his representative career.
The Melbourne halfback already had an impressive resume by the time he took over the starting role. He had played in four grand finals, won two premierships (stripped in 2010) and was known as the benchmark half in the competition.
Later that year Cronk would collect his first legitimate premiership with the Storm as Melbourne romped to a dominant grand final win.
With the 2012 series locked at 1-1 and requiring a decider, Thurston stepped forward to etch himself into the record books.
He provided a try assist, try and four goals to see him surpass Michael O’Connor to become the second highest point scorer in Origin history.
He would also collect his fifth man of the match award in his 26th match.
The ultimate impact on the result may have been made via Cooper Cronk’s match winning field goal, but it was Thurston’s inspirational play that had allowed Cronk to become the hero.
The pair would become an excellent foil for each other.
Cronk’s familiarity with fellow spine players Cameron Smith and Billy Slater meant he could orchestrate the match like playing a club game for the Storm.
This allowed Thurston freer rein to do as he wished, giving him the time and space to run the ball and organise short side raids alongside his kicking game.
It was a partnership the Blues would never have an answer for.
In 2013 they would combine again to make it eight straight series victories.
Like 2012, this series too would come down to a tight decider.
This time, Thurston would provide the ultimate difference. His try and two goals would see the Maroons win the match 12-10 in front of a record crowd in Sydney.
Thurston’s shredding of the Blues defence in the 10th minute for his try followed by his subsequent conversions ensured he once again proved the difference.
In 2014, the saying “all good things must come to an end,” rang true for the Maroons.
After eight consecutive series wins, the Blues finally managed to reclaim the Shield, taking the first two matches.
Thurston featured in all three but the absence of his halves partner was keenly felt by the Maroons.
Cronk broke his arm during game one, turning the tide towards the Blues as Thurston was asked to adapt to playing with relative Origin rookie Daly Cherry-Evans.
Queensland couldn’t adapt enough for game two as the Blues managed to claw their way to a series win in Sydney.
Cronk returned in game three as Queensland cruised to a comfortable victory to show just how much they had missed the Melbourne maestro.
The Final Hurrah
Normal service quickly resumed though, with the Maroons winning the 2015, 2016 and 2017 series.
2015 well and truly drove home the message that 2014 was a blip on the radar as the Maroons trounced the Blues in a game three decider, 52-6 with Thurston collecting the man of the match award.
They did it all as their golden generation slowly left the building.
Like the Australian men’s test cricket side of the 2000s, the legends were retiring.
Billy Slater was unavailable in 2016.
Matt Scott retired from Origin football in 2016.
Thurston himself was rapidly approaching the end of his career.
In 2017 he was injured for game one of the series, being replaced by Anthony Milford.
Queensland fell to NSW 28-4 at Suncorp Stadium.
Thurston returned for game two, once again revealing his importance to the side. Not only was his presence greatly welcomed by the Maroons, but his magic goal kicking boot provided the difference as Queensland won the match 18-16.
He did it all with a busted shoulder he carried through the majority of the game.
That shoulder would end up spelling the end of not only his Origin career, but his NRL career.
Yet, with virtually his final play in the Origin arena he won the series for Queensland.
The Maroons would march back to Suncorp and dominate the Blues to seal the series.
They wouldn’t have been there without a busted Thurston sideline conversion.
The Maroons quickly had to adjust to life without the man they call JT, along with the losses of Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.
In 2018 they fell to the Brad Fittler coached Blues. NSW repeated the dose in 2019 as Mitchell Pearce finally won the shield Thurston had famously sledged him over in 2015.
The dust is still settling on Thurston’s career as he is known for his command of the Cowboys and his premiership-winning field goal.
In Origin, it’s easy to be lost in the careers of his teammates. Slater, Cronk, Lockyer, Smith, Inglis all have their own magic moments.
But by the end of his Maroons career, he had five man of the match awards, one Wally Lewis medal, the most consecutive matches and the highest Origin point scorer.
Like his entire career, Jonathan Thurston left everything out on the field in Origin.