You know all those intense, heated arguments you had last year about Johnathan Thurston and whether he deserved the Clive Churchill Medal?
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Fairytale win for Cowboys in NRL decider
A dramatic extra time Johnathan Thurston field goal seals a fairytale NRL grand final victory for the North Queensland Cowboys over the Brisbane Broncos.
Well, they just ended. Thurston has killed the debate.
He remains so disappointed with his own performance in the Cowboys' breakthrough grand final win that he still has not watched a replay of the match. He has only caught glimpses of the golden point win over the Broncos that defined his career and created history as North Queensland's first premiership.
"Nope, I haven't watched the game," Thurston says. "Because I wasn't very happy with how I played." So you didn't deserve the Clive Churchill Medal, as the best player on the field?
"No, I thought Jakey [hooker Jake Granville] was our best. I thought he was outstanding. There were a couple of errors that I made that put us under the pump, that's what I didn't like about it. That's why I won't watch the game."
Last year is last year. The 2016 season will start in less than a week. But let's hold the brandy glass in our fingers and swirl it around just a little while longer as we reminisce about that epic grand final.
Thurston does not have to watch the match because it is all there in his mind, in full high definition colour and surround sound.
And when he relives those final moments out loud, he suddenly takes us right back there to ANZ Stadium, watching the impossible become possible …
Doubts: Johnathan Thurston looks on during the second half of the 2015 NRL Grand Final. Photo: Cameron Spencer
First of all, at no stage in the second half did he believe his side could not win. Not after centre Kane Linnett spilt the ball over the line in the 61st minute. Not after fullback Lachlan Coote was denied a try for a double movement minutes later.
"When they [the Broncos] started kicking it out, with half an hour to go, that's when I knew we were still in this," Thurston recalls. "That negative style said to me they were trying to save the game instead of trying to win it. We'd been in that position many times throughout the year and scored on the buzzer to win the game, so it never crossed my mind that we weren't going to win."
Apart from his defensive slips in the first half, this is where much of the criticism of Thurston's game is levelled; that he tried so hard in the second half, with the premiership on the line, he overplayed his hand and stunted the attack.
Some of us take a different view: without Thurston's heavy involvement, as he tried to singularly drag his teammates onto the dance floor, the Cowboys would have become a pub trivia question in years to come … Who did the Broncos beat in the 2015 NRL grand final?
Instead, with 15 seconds remaining, Thurston found himself with the ball and under siege, ducking and weaving and pirouetting out of tackles to find five-eighth Michael Morgan, who found Kyle Feldt, who found the try that levelled it all up.
Thurston had one of his signature arcing kicks from the sideline to win the premiership, after the siren to seal the deal. It arced and arced and arced … And of course, it pinged off the upright.
"I was shattered," he recalls. "But the boys ran over and snapped me out of it pretty quickly, because I had to turn my focus to golden point and let it go. And that's what I did."
Let it out: Johnathan Thurston after missing the final conversion kick during the 2015 grand final. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
When the mayhem eased, Thurston won the coin toss and elected to kick off for the start of extra-time. Broncos halfback Ben Hunt knocked on, gifting the Cowboys the first opportunity to ice it with a field goal from close range.
"I had an opportunity straight off the scrum, but I wasn't comfortable with it so I took the tackle. Set-up again with Cootey. He wasn't comfortable so we took another tackle. Then we came back to the middle with Jimmy Tamou. He gets an unbelievable play-the-ball. It was so quick. Felt like I had all the time in the world to slot it ..."
And then came that bullshit moment in sport when luck and skill and fate all come together to create history.
"Then I dropped it out of my hand, but because it was windy I could see the ball going over on its side ..."
Thurston illustrates with his hands how the ball was slipping underneath him as it fell to the earth. Ideally, you want the ball to be upright so you have greater control.
Otherwise, you are likely to shank it like a weekend hacker off the first tee.
"Watch Cooper [Queensland teammate Cooper Cronk] drop it – he's perfect. When I dropped it, I could see it going under. How I've struck it in the belly of the ball to go through, I don't know. It's lucky I struck it fair in the belly of the ball, because anywhere else and it would've shanked."
The ball sailed between the uprights. Premiership secured.
The moment: Johnathan Thurston kicks the field goal to win the 2015 grand final. Photo: Supplied
"Then," he says, "it was just chaos."
For about a month.
Some will argue that Thurston didn't deserve the Clive Churchill Medal as the best player on the field that night, and he would agree with them.
But let's not forget the not-so-minor play of him landing the match-winning field goal, despite a rogue gust of wind almost preventing the most dramatic finish to a grand final in history.
That was 9.40pm on October 4 last year.
Here, in the foyer of the Pullman Quay Grand on Macquarie Street just hours before the NRL season launch on Thursday, Thurston is more than prepared to reminisce about the past with one eye on the future.
So now, with the business of notching a victory that confirms his future status as an Immortal, there's nothing left to do. He and the Cowboys can kick back and ...
"If only it was that simple," he says, cranking up his chainsaw-like laugh. "That's the challenge now: for us as a club and a squad, to go back-to-back. We're under no illusions that's in front of us. It hasn't been done for many years."
Since the Broncos in 1992-93.
Motivation and injury loom as the only factors that can stop the Cowboys from creating more history. Oh, and the Broncos and a handful of other strong contenders.
But, unlike most sides, they have stability because they have made minimal changes to their squad.
"We're in a unique position in that we haven't had a high turnover of players," Thurston says. "We can still field the same 17 from that grand final this season, which apparently hasn't been done since the 1980s. We're in a unique position and we should make the most of it."
Perhaps the most significant decision during the off-season involved the coach, Paul Green.
He could have fulfilled a "lifelong dream" if he had accepted the job as Mal Meninga's replacement as coach of Queensland for this year's State of Origin series.
There were reports the Cowboys board wanted him to reject the approach. "They wouldn't have stopped me if I really wanted to do it," Green has said.
The decision was his and in the end Green said no because he wanted to focus on his club. It sent the strongest of messages to the players, says Thurston.
"He put his own personal ambitions aside to concentrate on us," he says. "It was the right decision in the end. I'm sure he's too good a coach to not get another opportunity. But it speaks volumes about the type of person that he is."
King of North Queensland: Johnathan Thurston bringing the premiership back to Townsville. Photo: Getty Images
Maybe Green saw the influence of the grand final win on the North Queensland region, just like Thurston.
Over Christmas, people were still patting the captain on the back whenever they spotted him in the street.
"I didn't realise the impact it would have," he says. "The natural disasters the area has had over the years, from Cyclone Yasi to the farmers doing it tough with drought ... By winning the grand final they felt normal."
Some North Queensland fans bristle when they hear their football side referred to as "JT's Cowboys" – but his importance cannot be understated, notwithstanding arguments about the Clive Churchill Medal.
It remains unanswered how much longer he will continue playing. He turns 33 this year and is off-contract at the end of next season. He did not require off-season surgery for the second time in a row. That hasn't happened in 14 years of first grade.
"I'd like to go around in 2018 but I'll wait and see how the body is first," he says. "At this stage, mentally and physically, I feel like I can go around again."
It would be nice if he stuck around.
Young pup: Johnathan Thurston at Bulldogs training at Belmore Oval in 2004. Photo: Simon Alekna
If you had suggested a few years ago that Thurston would become the elder statesman of the game, some would tell you it's time to get off the brandies.
Tell him that not many of us ever envisaged him as "the face of the game", he chuckles.
"Neither did I. There are incidents I haven't been proud of. I'd like to think I'm learning and evolving …"
We are not referring to that. Thurston was always the cheeky player when the cameras and tape recorders had been put away, but seemed too shy when they were on to become the game's voice.
Soon after our interview, he was standing alongside the other club captains, officially opening the season with confidence and aplomb.
"Yeah, I am comfortable with being that person," Thurston says. "I feel like I've grown into that. It's been hard work but I'm comfortable with where I am in the game, and who I am."