NRL: An in-depth look at the Johns v Thurston debate

@Hayward_AdamK

It has become an age old debate between rugby league fans on opposite sides of the Queensland-New South Wales border, as to who was the better halfback between immortal, Andrew Johns and future immortal, Johnathan Thurston.

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I have been watching rugby league for 31 of my 37 years on earth, and I had the privilege of being able to follow the careers of both legends affectionately known as ‘Joey’ and ‘JT’.  

So who was better? Lets look at an in depth comparison of both players’ careers.

In my opinion, it merely comes down to subjective opinion. The better player is in the eye of the beholder. If you think Johns was better, then Johns was better. If you think Thurston was better, then Thurston was better.

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From observation, most arguments I have seen are flawed with bias, usually depending on which side of the Queensland-New South Wales border you are from.

NRL.com published a fan-poll in May, 2020 on its website and social media platforms, which drew 136,000 total votes to determine the best halfback of the past 30 years.

With a shortlist of the top 10 halfbacks, Johns and Thurston dominated the poll but it was Thurston who edged out Johns with 42% of the vote to Joey’s 36% to be crowned the best halfback of the past three decades.

But why was Thurston voted as the greatest? Because more Queenslander’s voted in the poll? Could it have been due to many votes from younger fans who never saw Johns play while in his prime? Or was it because voters genuinely believe Thurston was better than Johns?

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I want to dismiss a couple of common, but silly arguments made by fans as to why they think Johns or Thurston was the better halfback.

Those in favour of Thurston will argue he is better because Johns admitted to being a regular user of recreational drugs throughout his playing career.

The truth is, taking ecstasy, which can remain detectable in a user’s blood for up to 48 hours, on the night after a game would not have had any bearing on his performance on the following weekend.

On the other side of the coin, those who favour Johns will argue he is better because he was a better defender. But when it comes to defensive statistics, there was not a big difference between him and Thurston.

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Johns was blessed with a solid build and a huge backside, so he was physically able to flattened opposition back-rowers and he had an excellent tackling technique.

Thurston was not so physically blessed. He was skinny with chicken legs, had opposition players twice his size targeting him every game he ever played, but he often made big tackles of his own throughout his career.

Thurston would never have made it to first grade if he could not tackle.

Defence is more than just making the tackle. It is also about executing defensive structure, reading the oppositions attacking plays and communication with the players beside you. Johns could put on a glorious hit, but I remember Allan Langer bamboozling him in defence on a number of occasions.

Andrew JohnsCareer StatsJohnathan Thurston
249Games323
61.85%Win percentage55.11%
2176 (5th all-time)Points2222 (4th all-time)
80Tries 90
917/1235 (74.25%)Goals923/1161 (79.50%)
2 (1997, 2001)Premierships 2 (2004, 2015)
Source: Rugby League Project as of May, 2020

Although Thurston holds better numbers in many different statistics, it should be noted that Johns’ career was cut short due to a neck injury at the age of just 32.

If it were not for injuries, he could have played on for another two or three years and the gap between those statistics might be more even.

It could be argued that Johns had a superior win percentage because he played in a better team, stacked with representative players. But he also made those players around him better.

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Thurston’s win percentage took a hit between 2008-2010 playing with a very ordinary Cowboys outfit.

Johns finished his remarkable career as the greatest points scorer in premiership history (currently fifth on the all-time points scoring list) and most likely would have finished ahead of Thurston’s 2222 career points if he had not been forced to retire prematurely.

Thurston finished his career with a superior goal kicking percentage.

Andrew Johns Individual Accolades Johnathan Thurston
3 (1998, 1999, 2002)Dally M Medal 4 (2005, 2007, 2014, 2015)
4 (Halfback)Dally M Positional Awards7 (4 Halfback and 3 Five-Eight)
2 (1999, 2001)Golden Boot3 (2011, 2013, 2015)
1 (2001)Clive Churchill1 (2015)
5Proven Summons Medal 2
2012 (The eighth)ImmortalIn waiting
Source: Rugby League Project

Thurston again edges Johns in individual accolades to finish with the better career, but again, had Johns not been forced to retire, his list of accolades might be more even with Thurston’s.

Thurston was very fortunate to win the 2005 Dally M medal, after Johns went down injured.

But the fact Thurston did win the award for the NRL’s best and fairest in his first season as a regular first grader after moving to the Cowboys from the Bulldogs is an incredible achievement.

Thurston’s accolades are even more astounding when you consider he played in the same era as Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis.

Johns became the eighth immortal in 2008 and it is a forgone conclusion that Thurston will join him once he is eligible.

Andrew JohnsState of Origin StatsJohnathan Thurston
23Origins37 (second of all-time)
13Game wins24 (second of all-time)
5Series wins11
4Man of the Match 5
4Tries5
37Goals99 (Origin record)
4 (Origin record)Field Goals2
94Points220 (Origin record)
*3 games for NSW Country
Source: Rugby League Project

Thurston enjoyed one of the most successful origin careers of all-time. He holds several records including most consecutive matches played (36), most goals and most points.

He was a key part of Queensland’s “dynasty” period from 2006 to 2017 and was regarded by former Queensland captain Cameron Smith, as the greatest player to ever wear the Maroons jersey.

Has anyone nailed more clutch moments in origin than Thurston?

His field goal to send game one, 2005 into golden point; his sideline conversion to send game one, 2006 into golden point; his show and go followed by a pinpoint pass at full speed to send Brent Tate on a long range try in game three, 2006 (which I personally consider the biggest play in all of Queensland’s “dynasty” period); the dummy and linebreak to put Billy Slater over to score to seal the series in game three, 2008 and his sideline conversion to win game two, 2017 which enabled Queensland to win that series.

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But Johns’ performances in games two and three in 2005 after a long layoff with injury, will go down in history as arguably, or maybe no argument, the greatest individual performances in origin history to lead the Blues to a series win after being 0-1 down. It was a hell of an origin lesson to a young Thurston in his debut series.

However Johns’ origin career was a bit of a mixed bag.

He made his debut in 1995 after incumbent halfback Ricky Stuart was not considered due to his affiliation with the Super League.

His first origin series was a series to forget with “Fatty’s no-names” white washing the Blues 3-zip. He was brilliant in 1996 in the #9 jersey.

Johnathan Thurston v Andrew Johns: Courtesy of nrl.com

His 1997 series was interrupted with injury. Game one, 1998 was a night he would rather forget after the Blues scored more tries than the Maroons, but a wayward night with the boot cost his side the match and ultimately, the series.

Johns’ origin career was often interrupted by injury, missing the 2001 series which the Blues lost and the 2004 series. 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2005 is when we saw the best of Johns, contributing to three series wins, two draws and no losses.

So once again, had Johns had better luck with injuries, his origin stats would likely be more even with Thurston.

Andrew Johns Test StatsJohnathan Thurston
23Tests 38
20Wins35
2 (1995, 2000)World Cup wins1 (2013)
9Tries13
66Goals165 (Australian record)
168Points382 (Australian record)
Source: Rugby League Project

Johns played 10 of his 23 tests at hooker, but also won two world cups at hooker. It is a testament to his talents that he could dominate at the highest level in two positions, including a man of the match performance in the #9 jersey in the 1995 World Cup Final.

Statistically, Thurston holds the better international career as well with point scoring records, but is pipped by Joey with two World Cup wins to one.

Thurston was part of the famous loss to New Zealand in the final, but tasted sweet redemption in a man of the match performance in the final of the 2013 World Cup.

Unfortunately for Thurston, he missed Australia’s 2017 World Cup triumph through injury in what would have been his representative swansong before retirement.

So overall, Thurston stats are superior, but in my subjective opinion, that doesn’t necessarily make him the superior player, as stats will never tell the full story.

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Let me explain why I believe there is no winner in this debate and why I believe Johns and Thurston are equals.

Johns was innovative with his unique kicking game; the cross field kick, banana kick, the weaponizing of Ricky Stuart’s spiral bomb, and he was credited with changing the way halfbacks played.

Thurston perfected what Johns had started.

Opposition defences had adapted to Johns’ innovation and Thurston had the ability to stay ahead of the curve for his entire career.

Another way he stayed ahead of that curve was the way he utilized and combined with his fullback, Matt Bowen in a way no other playmaker could, and how he single-handedly made Gavin Cooper the most prolific try scoring back rower in the competition.

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Thurston also gave new hope to the undersized kids.

Often told he was too small and would never make it to first grade because of his lack of size, Thurston is proof that size does not matter.

Both players are of equal toughness.

As mentioned, as a halfback, Johns would often flatten opposition back rowers in defence, while not many halfbacks had the courage to engage the defensive line as often as Thurston.

I had never seen a player get smashed after, or in the act of passing, as often as Thurston did every game he played – and he would always get back up and engage the line over and over again.

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Both Johns and Thurston stood out above the rest as far as competitiveness and the will-to-win during their eras.

Both had unrivaled vision.

Not only did both players have the ability to flawlessly execute their attacking structures, they had the ability to read and manipulate the defence, play what was in front of them and take advantage of opportunities.

They could create something out of nothing, and not only think two plays ahead, but they could use multiple sets and even half a game to setup the opposition defence for a big play.

The 1997 and 2001 Grand Finals will forever be remembered for Johns’ greatness.

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In 1997, Johns put his career on-the-line by playing with broken ribs and a punctured lung. He went on to set up Darren Albert with one of the most iconic plays in Grand Final history to win a maiden premiership for his Newcastle Knights in the dying minutes.

The 2001 Grand Final saw Johns’ Knights take on the stand out team of that season, the minor premiers and heavily favoured Parramatta Eels.

The only reason why the Eels did not break their premiership drought that night, was a Clive Churchill performance from the great Andrew Johns.

Thurston’s 2015 season stands out like nothing I have seen from any other player.

He came up with the big plays to steal victories in a the last minute, literally, on a number of occasions. He also lead his side to comeback win after comeback win, and I am not talking about six or 10 point deficits, he and his Cowboys chased down 18-24 point deficits several times as well as nailing clutch field goals either on the fulltime siren or ‘golden point’ extra time.

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Most notably, Thurston’s Cowboys recorded the second biggest comeback win in premiership history against the Eels. Trailing 30-6 in the second half, the Cowboys scored five tries in 11 minutes.

Thurston set up four of those tries and nailed sideline conversion after sideline conversion to win.

He then went on to win the 2015 Dally M medal by a record 11 votes.

He kicked the winning field goal in golden point of the 2015 Grand Final to “fulfill his destiny” and finally deliver North Queensland their maiden premiership.

Great halves like Lewis, Cronk, Lockyer, Langer, Stuart, Sterling etc – all belong in the upper echelons of the greatest playmakers of all time – but Johns and Thurston are in a league of their own.

Featured Image: Courtesy of nrl.com