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North Queensland co-captain Johnathan Thurston has been given the honour of officially launching the NRL season. Fairfax Media understands Thurston has been asked to deliver an address on behalf of the players at a gala function at Mrs Macquarie's Chair on Thursday.
Rugby league is blessed to have so many superstars who double as positive role models. Greg Inglis, Kieran Foran, Matt Moylan, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Aaron Woods and Melbourne's big three of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk are just some of the game's best ambassadors. But officials from Rugby League Central couldn't go past JT as the man of the moment.
Thurston was already the unofficial face of the game after a stellar 2015, in which he achieved every conceivable team and personal goal. The Queensland and Australian playmaker booted the winning field goal in arguably the greatest grand final in history, earning the Clive Churchill Medal by doing so.
It capped a year that included yet another State of Origin series win for Queensland, a fourth Rugby League Players Association medal as player's player, an unprecedented fourth Dally M medal, the Golden Boot award as the game's best, and the chance to add a World Club Challenge title to an overflowing trophy cabinet. Thurston kicked off the season in 2013 and said he had no qualms about the pressure and responsibility that came with it.
"Not at all," he said at the time. "It's a huge honour and, once they asked me, I put my hand up straight away. We've got a great product and we've got some really good people within the organisation doing great things throughout the community. I'm glad to be a part of it."
Thurston's heroics aren't confined to the field. The 32-year-old has matured into a leader of the Indigenous community and a voice for the players. When the NRL and the Player's Association was at an impasse over welfare issues, Thurston threatened to boycott the Dally M Awards, even though he had the most to lose. The selfless stance helped the parties come together to work out a compromise.
Thurston and his premiership-winning Cowboys are also front and centre of the NRL's advertising campaign. The NRL has unveiled a television snippet featuring Thurston in those unforgettable moments in the grand final against Brisbane. The footage, taken from a fan's perspective, shows Thurston missing his attempt at an after-the-siren conversion, followed by his match-winning field goal in extra time.
It is customary for the premiers to open the season, but that honour goes to Parramatta, who host Brisbane on March 3. The Cowboys, at their request, have a Saturday night slot at 1300 Smiles Stadium against Cronulla to ensure their title defence begins in front of their home fans.
Despite the fact he will be 33 in April, Ladbrokes have installed Thurston as the $5 favourite in this year's Dally M Medal market.