League: Former butcher's assistant out to carve his name into Australian league immortality

By Paul Crawley in Cardiff

Johnathan Thurston reckons this will be his last World Cup. Picture / Brett Phibbs
Johnathan Thurston reckons this will be his last World Cup. Picture / Brett Phibbs

He started his working life as a butcher's assistant at a supermarket after every NRL club he approached told him he would not cut it in the big time.

Come Sunday morning (NZT) in Cardiff, Johnathan Thurston will be out to carve up the Poms in the World Cup opener at the famous Millennium Stadium.

The Kangaroos superstar is today one of league's biggest names - but in the countdown to the tournament kick-off Thurston took us back to where it all started.

Or, more to the point, how it almost didn't.

The now 30-year-old recalled he was a teenager who had moved from Brisbane to Toowoomba to work in Coles because he was constantly told he wasn't up to the job.

"In high school it almost broke me," Thurston said.

"When you believe you are better than some of the boys that are getting the scholarships, when you receive letters from clubs saying that they don't want to have any further discussions with you ...

"Mark Murray at Melbourne. Tommy Raudonikis at Wests. I had a chat to Nathan Brown as well when he was at the Dragons," Thurston said.

Did the Broncos ever come knocking?

"They were never interested," he said. "I was 16 or 17."

So that's when he moved to Toowoomba to become a butcher.

"A friend of mine, he was the head butcher at Coles, and he asked if I wanted to be his assistant so I just prepared the meat for him."

But just when he was about to give up on his dream, Ricky Stuart spotted him when Stuart was coaching Jersey Flegg at the Bulldogs.

"I ended up playing local A Grade in Toowoomba and I played Queensland 19s when I was from there," Thurston recalled.

"Ricky Stuart saw that game and sent Mark Hughes up."

He still had one hurdle to overcome - homesickness.

"I remember sitting in Ricky's office crying," he said. "I was missing my family.

"It took me about five weeks to get a start on the bench and I remember being in his room crying to go home.

"He let me go home for the weekend but made me promise to come back."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

"I still remember to this day wanting to go home and chuck it all in," he said. "And Ricky was very persistent with me."

That was 2001.

"We ended up winning the Jersey Flegg and then the reserve grade comp the following year."

Then in 2004 Steve Folkes called him up to first grade to replace skipper Steve Price in the grand final.

"Folksey called me into his office and said I want to play you on the bench and I nearly fell off the chair," he laughed.

Which brings us to where we are today, with Thurston fast approaching rugby league Immortality.

Earlier this year, Matty Johns wrote a column about where he thinks Thurston will eventually end up.

Johns reckons that within the next year or so Thurston will surpass the game's eighth Immortal, Andrew Johns, as the greatest halfback ever to play league.

This World Cup could well be the next step down that road.

You ask Thurston to respond to Johns' comments and he just laughs - but when the laughing stops that famous competitive streak sparks his thoughts.

He tells you about the challenges that are still ahead, winning a premiership for the Cowboys is right at the top of his list, but first there is this World Cup dream to conquer.

"I'd say this will be my last World Cup," he said.

"I was a part of the group that lost in '08 but it is a totally different team now we want to bring that World Cup home."

He knows this eight-week campaign will probably come down to a flash of brilliance that separates the teams challenging in the tournament final at Old Trafford on November30.

And if the Aussies get through this game against England and stay on track all tournament, when that moment arrives you can bet the butcher boy who no one rated will be the man demanding to have the ball in his hands.

Finding a way to win, just as he has his entire life. They always say talent will get you only so far in this game.

Johnathan Thurston is living proof no amount of talent will take you to the top of the world unless you have the drive to get there.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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