The world of rugby league needs to prepare itself. Since 2002 when a scrawny little kid made his debut for the Bulldogs off the bench, Johnathan Thurston has been part of the fabric of the NRL.
Now thirty four and with father time creeping up around the next corner, the moment has come for the game to prepare for his exit.
Representative wise that is this season, and from a club perspective 2018.
Having watched the little genius for over a decade, it wouldn’t surprise if he went out with something of a bang.
It won’t just be the Cowboys who need to prepare for life without JT, the broader league community will need to be ready for the shake-up that his absence will cause.
In saying that, North Queensland are undoubtedly well aware of the battles ahead. The recent calf and shoulder injuries to their captain, along with other significant outs, see the Cowboys coming off three losses in their last four, and experiencing an early dose of the post-Thurston blues.
The development of Michael Morgan will be vital over the next few seasons, as will the roles of Lachlan Coote and Ray Thompson, who will need to provide some of the spark and structure that JT does on a weekly basis.
Kalyn Ponga’s move to the Knights takes away another promising young and creative player. While not a complete athlete just yet, there is a little bit of Thurston in him. The young JT looked physically inept and incredibly raw as a player when he made his debut all those years ago.
No doubt the Cowboys will have a significant period of adjustment but they won’t be the only ones.
The Queensland Origin team will look strange without the little champion. Potentially the greatest spine to have ever graced a field will take on a new shape. Anthony Milford looks most likely to step into the six, yet the adjustment will be major.
Whether it was Billy Slater or Greg Inglis at fullback, the remainder of the spine has been solid for an extended period of time, with Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith completing potentially the most consistent and lethal combination with Thurston and the fullback.
Combined, they have played a total of 148 Origin matches. Smith holds the record with thirty eight appearances and Thurston has a streak of thirty five games, which looks under serious threat thanks to the rotator cuff problem he is battling.
How Kevin Walters approaches the potential loss of Thurston for Game 1 of this series might give us an idea of his thinking for 2018, where the halves combination will have at least one new face.
Depending on the decision that Cooper Cronk makes on his future in footy, it could be a completely new combination altogether for next season.
The Australian team will cover his position with a quality player, no doubt about that. Yet the Kangaroos will also need to adapt to the absence of their most reliable and inspirational player.
While the teams for whom he plays will grapple with his absence, they won’t be the only ones finding it difficult to cope with life without JT.
Fans from all clubs, states and codes have embraced him and warmed to his smile, laugh and growth, from a raw rookie, to a mature sensible and well spoken player, husband and father.
Those with just a passing interest in the game often laud praise on Thurston and draw comparisons between him and some of the other less savoury incidents that sometimes occur in the game. They wonder, ‘why can’t they all behave like JT?’
Women love him, everyone respects him and his involvement with the kids is impressive. While being far from perfect and we have all seen Thurston let a few f-bombs rip when a conversion is missed or a bad call goes against him, the public image he has crafted and held as his standard is impressive.
JT’s ability to connect with the human side of the game is rare. Whether it be opposition fans or players, he’s impossible to disrespect. He makes the game fun with his rampant enthusiasm and energy.
As the poster boy for the NRL, the media will miss him as much as anyone. Always a potential source of a good news story, Thurston counterbalances much of the negativity around the game. Some deserved and some not.
What the print and visual media would give for three or four just like him. I hope Thurston takes a bit of time away from the game after retirement, and pays back his family for their loyalty and support. He’s certainly earned that right.
However, Channel Nine, Foxtel and print media will all be circling to win his cherished signature. I’m not sure where he stands contractually with the media at this point but his influence would actually be greater in other areas.
While a cosy fit, a regular gig on the commentary team might be the last thing on Thurston’s mind. Working with Indigenous players and kids in remote communities or inspiring young people to become the best version of themselves possible, seems more likely for a man of Thurston’s status and skills.
If he was to throw himself into his work as he did on the field, his influence could be of great significance.
The NRL must also prepare themselves for life without their number one man. Sure, there are ample young players pushing for superstar status, but the loss of Thurston will hurt the brand and no doubt, they will seek to keep him involved in the game in some way.
Todd Greenberg would be remiss not to farewell JT with all pomp and ceremony. After a weekend bereft of club football and a series of errors in judgement by players who, quite frankly, just don’t seem to get it, using Thurston as a model example has always helped the NRL.
He proves the point that not all players are up to no good. As fans we should all know this and resist the doom and gloom sometimes presented in the sensationalised reporting of incidents, however, it is nice to have physical manifestations of the model player in a person such as Thurston, just to prove the point.
Without wanting to death knell his career prematurely, there will be a considerable void in the game when the boots are eventually hung.
One thing is for certain, life without JT is going to be tough for some and his irreplaceable value will expose holes in the teams in which he played.
His greatest gift to us all will be the legacy he leaves behind. An immortal legacy.