IMMORTAL Mal Meninga has delivered Johnathan Thurston the ultimate retirement gift, labelling the Cowboys great “what every Australian aspires to be”.
Thurston’s last NRL game for the Cowboys against the Gold Coast at Cbus Super Stadium brings down the curtain on a remarkable 17-year career that has seen him establish new benchmarks for what a rugby league player should be.
Aside from his two premierships, Clive Churchill Medal and four Dally M Medals among a swag of individual achievements and records, Meninga says it is Thurston’s humility and humanity that will be the greatest legacies he leaves the game.
“He is up there with the greatest, easily – as a footballer, as a competitor and as a bloke,” Meninga told fogs.com.au.
“He has all the marks in what you would want in a rugby league person. He has a passion for the game, for his people and for all Australians.
“He understands his profile, and how to use that as an asset to improve the lives of others. He has used his success in rugby league to make a difference in the wider community, and that is an amazing thing.
“He deserves all the accolades and the success that he has had.”
Meninga said Thurston’s rare mix of on-field brilliance and humility had shown a generation of rugby league players that being a good player and good person does not have to be mutually exclusive.
“For all the brilliant things that he has done on the football field, all the success he has had and the personal awards he has achieved, there are two little parts to his rugby league career that show what he is really about,” Meninga said.
“The first is the fact that he was the first player after a goal-kick to stop and pick up the tee before handing it back and saying thank-you to the ballboy or ballgirl.
“That sums up his humility and the respect that he has. The great thing is now, most kickers in the NRL follow his lead and do the same thing, and the game is better for it.
“The second is how he hands his headgear to a young fan – of the Cowboys or the opposition – at the end of each half of footy that he plays.
“Even in the middle of the pressure of a rugby league game, he takes the time to make a big difference to the lives of a young footy fan. And that is something that will stay with them forever.
“I have no doubt in the years ahead, we will have a new player emerge on the scene and tell the story of how they were inspired to pursue their dream of being an NRL player because of the night that Johnathan Thurston gave them his headgear.
“That selflessness is an incredible legacy to leave the game.
“Small things make a big difference, particularly when those small things are done by a giant of the game.
“JT would tell you that it is not a big deal. Those kids and their parents would tell you otherwise.
“His act of kindness might be a life-changing moment for one of those boys and girls. That is not something you can dismiss as ‘no big deal’. Johnathan has been a gift to rugby league.”
Meninga said Thurston was the embodiment of what is great about rugby league, and Australia – defying the doubters, working hard, becoming the best and never forgetting where you came from.
“He typifies what an Australian is,” Meninga said.
“He is fun-loving, doesn’t take himself seriously, but at the same time is passionate, fiercely competitive, loyal and protective.
“He has that cheekiness about him, but he takes his job and the responsibilities that come with it very seriously.
“He is compassionate. When the chips are down or when someone needs a hand, he is there to help.
“He sums up what being an Australian is about, and what every Australian aspires to be.”