Cameron Smith Johnathan Thurston Best Player Generation Rugby League NRL

Smith vs Thurston: Who is the Greatest of the Generation?

Last weekend, rugby league legends Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith faced off in a special ‘testimonial match’; the first of its kind in the NRL era. If the concept of a testimonial match feels foreign, it should. The necessity to celebrate the careers of players who are still active remains lost on most of the general public, the huge financial incentive for both players raises questions, and doing all of this in the pre-season made it appear to be nothing more than a targeted gimmick aimed at generating more interest in what was otherwise a regular trial match.

That said, the rarity of the situation and the caliber of those involved does call for an altered perception: These aren’t your regular NRL players. Individually, Cameron Smith and Johnathon Thurston rank among the most decorated and celebrated footballers to ever grace a green rectangle. Walking legends and cultural icons, headlining acts in the modern era. It goes without saying — they are the best of their generation.

In the end, it was the Cowboys, with the help of some trademark JT-magic, who walked away victorious in the encounter. While the result of the game and the events that transpired will likely be forgotten in short time, attention rightly turned to the status and legacy of these two champions. The match was a celebration of two incredible rugby league careers, but it also shone a light on a pressing debate which has been looming since the mid-2000s:

In the all-time standings, who is better? Johnathan Thurston or Cameron Smith?

Plenty weighed in over the week, but few were confident enough to declare a definitive winner.

It’s time for answers.

The Debate – Smith vs Thurston

The historical importance of both players cannot be understated. In addition to being two of the most decorated individuals the game has ever seen, they have each pushed the sport forward and can claim some responsibility for the state we find it in today, in different but equally important ways. Their revolutionary contributions are woven throughout their wonderful careers.

What raises the stakes of this debate – and why definitively naming one above the other as the best of the era carries such weight – is that both resumes will be eventually be submitted into the greatest player of all time discussion.

Approach & Influence

Whilst their careers have followed similar trajectories, their styles are quite distinct. If you were to attempt to boil it down to a simple sentiment, it would resemble something like this: ‘JT’ plays the game the way it should be played, Smith plays it the best way. That isn’t to undersell either style, but to highlight the difference in their approaches.

Thurston is the beating heart of his team, playing with a spirit so infectious that his troops rally around him, the entire team assuming the same characteristics. His enthusiasm rubs off on fans and lifts his teammates.

The Cowboys seem to be everyone’s second team — their breakthrough maiden premiership in 2015 was a celebratory moment for many. There was a collective joy in watching Thurston break through the final barrier with a golden-point field goal; a moment that will live on in Rugby League folklore.

Even last year, when the Thurston-less Cowboys somehow came within a game of completing the most remarkable Cinderella story, their performances were built upon the character that Thurston helped ingrain in the foundation of the club. Even when he’s not playing, his presence is beneficial, and in some ways, a driving force.

He is that influential.

Indeed, a significant portion of the aura around Thurston comes away from the field. That isn’t to take away from his accomplishments on the pitch, but to serve as a testament to his work off it.

Thurston’s development through his professional years, which has seen him become one of Australian sport’s most heralded figures, is one of the great success stories of the modern era. From his community work to his interaction with fans, he’s managed to elevate the image of rugby league in way few before have, and his wider impact is absolutely relevant to his standing both today and all-time.

Smith may not match Thurston for pure inspiration, but his effects on the game are no less important.

There are few athletes in any sport who are as good at winning as Smith. It’s uncanny how often he manages to make the right play at the exact moment it’s needed to help his team. If ‘JT’ is the beating heart of the operation, Smith is the on-switch – the electrical current that empowers everyone else to get going. A fantastic captain (and notably preferred over Thurston at rep level), Smith leans more towards the ‘lead by example’ form of leadership. Sure, his tactical acumen and organisational skills are unparalleled, but most importantly he’s always on the front-line, making tackles and calling the shots. It’s a different form of influence — using his personal ability to lead from the front and inspire teammates to follow. Smith never loses sight of the job at hand and knows exactly what he has to do to complete it.

Take Game 3 of the 2017 State of Origin series. Heading into the biggest match of the year, most players would keep their cards close to their chest. Smith was happy to lay his on the table. “I need to run the ball more” was the sentiment echoed by Smith in the media multiple times through the week. Despite telling the opposition his plan, what followed was a near-flawless game of football, another man-of-the-match award and another Origin series in the bag. That’s Smith to the core – even if you’ve got him perfectly figured out, he’s better at executing then you ever will be at stopping him.

Thurston was right on the money when he described Smith as being “7 or 8 sets ahead”. His remarkable ability to identify what his team needs at any specific moment in a match (and then the ability to execute flawlessly) should be held up as the headlining skill when describing his game. Entire defensive schemes collapse due to his movements from active half, despite a lack of pace or physicality. His deep bag of tools allows him to get the job done in so many different ways and this is what lifts him from ‘great’ to ‘all-time great’.

Already, you can see what made Smith and Thurston such compatible and effective teammates, and why separating them is so hard.

Accomplishments & Accolades

Durability is a badge both players can wear proudly. Last season’s shoulder injury aside, Thurston has notched over 17 games each season since joining the Cowboys, whilst Smith has topped 23 games in all but one season (2010, where he ‘just’ played 20) since becoming a full-time starter in 2003. For players who carry such a heavy load each week – and who have been key members of representative teams – this is simply astonishing.

Individually, they aren’t separated by much when it comes awards.

Thurston outpaces Smith with Dally M Player of the Year awards (4-2), Golden Boot awards (3-2) and Clive Churchill Medals (1-0; the only award to elude Smith in his illustrious career). On the flip side, Smith leads the count in Origin Player of the Series (4-1), Captain of the Year (3-1) and Club Player of the Year (7-4; incredible considering the caliber of his teammates). They both have picked up a record seven Dally M awards for best at their respective positions.

(As an aside, it’s arguable that none of the major rugby league award systems reliably produce the ‘correct’ winner. That these two have managed to rack up so many awards is credit to their greatness, but the numbers should be approached with some caution.)

Essentially, it’s a dead heat. The margin is far wider, however, when it comes to team success.

Melbourne’s dynasty is often (and rightly) the first mark given to Smith, but the Cowboys’ unlikely rise to prominence and impeccable recent record (the club has qualified for the last seven consecutive playoffs) has to be heavily credited to JT. To churn out such consistency with comparatively less talent on his side than what the Storm possessed is another tick in his box.

However, it simply doesn’t hold up in comparison to what they’ve achieved at the evil empire down south.

Start with their overall records at club level, where JT’s solid 55% winning percentage in North Queensland is dwarfed by Smith’s incredible career 71% strike rate.

During Smith’s tenure, the Storm have missed the finals once (2010; a punishment for the salary cap breach) and never finished lower than sixth. 10 top-four finishes, six minor premierships, seven grand finals, four premierships, three World Club Challenge titles. The list goes on. Consistency, results, records; it’s all there — Smith stands front and centre as the best player in the best team of the modern era. That feat is untouchable, and swings the conversation in his favour.

It’s at the crossroads of individual and team success where Smith begins to surge ahead. He’s outpaced his rival in appearances, racking up 356 to Thurston’s 299 and breaking the record for the most caps in NRL history. Smith holds the same record in the Origin arena with 42 selections (and counting) and is well on pace to surpass Darren Lockyer with the most Test appearances. We’re dealing with an unprecedented combination of talent, consistency and durability — many believe the next generation will be hard pressed to break these records any time soon, if ever.

With this, Smith has managed to cement himself as one of the best winners in the history of Rugby League, at all levels of the professional game. He boasts a record that Thurston, despite all his wizardry, hasn’t been able to achieve.

Auras, Styles and Stigmas

Cameron Smith is the ultimate winner, an unrelenting cerebral force of technical and tactical mastery, forever scheming and implementing ways to gain an advantage over the opposition. He is as calculated as he is talented, and the skill-set that supports one of the best footballing brains we’ve seen means he often looks untouchable on the field.

Smith’s dominance, however, can sometimes slip under the radar. It’s often said that the greatest possess the ability to make the most complex moves look simple – this is perhaps the best explanation of how Smith goes about his business, and why he isn’t as celebrated as perhaps he deserves to be.

Conversely, Thurston embodies the heart-on-your-sleeve, live-and-die-by-every-play mentality that is so exhilarating to watch. Whereas Smith never takes a step without a well-calculated purpose, methodical and mechanical in each play, ‘JT’ thinks on the move – as he runs, stutter-steps, and dummies, you can quite literally see him tinkering with the options at play and trying to decipher his next action. There’s a reason he quickly became, and has remained, a fan favourite – it’s truly intoxicating to watch and it unnerves defences.

Thus, Thurston might be easier to root for. He’s imperfect; he takes chances, he makes mistakes, he recovers. His effort is visible. He’ll put his body on the line and cop a hit if it means opening a gap in the defence a tad wider. Conversely, you rarely see Smith break a sweat, let alone get tackled.

It raises deeper questions: What brand of winning is most admired by the fans? This territory gets subjective fast, and here you might find a lot of votes for Thurston. Whilst the Cowboys’ general is admired and lauded for his successes, Smith, in contrast, is despised for his winning ways.

Comparing playing style and ability is where the proverbial ‘apples to oranges’ objection usually pops up, but it’s actually where things get fun.

With respect to defence, separating the two is not so difficult. The comparison obviously requires consideration of the scope of their positions – Smith carries a heavier burden in the middle of the field – but even adjusting for this, the gap is sizeable. Smith is routinely among the best handful of defenders each year and is the leading man in a Melbourne defensive unit which is as good as any in recent memory. So, if both are world class attacking talents and Smith is the superior defender, case closed, right?

Not so fast.

There’s also something to be said about the importance of late-game situations. With the match on the line, there’s few players you’d want with the ball in their hands ahead of Thurston. Perhaps his ability to execute within a structured offence has masked it, but he is one of the best instinctive players of all time. Smith isn’t too far behind (and is the guy you’d want providing the service) but ‘JT’ has produced countless match winning plays over the years and takes the cake here.

That aside, on offence it’s pretty hard to split them: vision, playmaking, kicking, ball-running — all elite. Taken in total, Cam gets the edge for his defensive stoutness. That, paired with his incredible ability to continuously adapt his game, has helped him achieve the longevity that has pushed him ahead.

Whilst both have aged tremendously, Smith’s ability to harness his strengths and continue to find new ways to impact the game have kept him atop the food chain. Thurston’s consistency is incredible, but Smith’s continual improvement – in what were supposed to be his twilight years, but somehow became an extended second prime – is unprecedented. Nobody should be putting up their best season at age 34, but ‘The Accountant’ dominated the league like few we’ve seen in 2017.

The Verdict

If we stopped the race today, Smith would have to finish ahead. Coming in second place is no small feat, and Thurston has put forward a compelling claim to a top-five all-time career. He will, however, trail his contemporary whenever ranked.

Of course, we haven’t reached the finish line just yet.

The element that makes the debate so enticing is the unfinished ending. As we press into the 2018 season, we enter the final chapter of their careers, and whilst their journeys have been similar up until this point, the direction they head from here could alter where they settle in the all-time rankings.

It will be a truncated final period for JT, his post-prime slated to only last one season as he approaches retirement at the end of 2018. Considering Smith intends to play on, to surpass him in his final hurrah Thurston would have to put forth a season on par with his 2015 or Smith’s 2017 to boost him to the top of the tree.

It’s hard to envision Thurston producing a season of that caliber. He’s arguably fallen to the third most important in the North Queensland pecking order due to the meteoric rise of behemoth Jason Taumalolo and further development of Michael Morgan which culminated in his stellar 2017 campaign. But the emergence of these star teammates is a huge plus in terms of the team’s chances of success. The less Thurston is depended on, the less strain put on his ageing legs. Without representative duties to worry about, the hope is that he is able to go out on top. In what is sure to turn into the Thurston farewell tour, a Cowboys premiership isn’t hard to imagine.

In Melbourne, Cooper Cronk’s departure signals the beginning of a new chapter for both Smith and the Storm, their first pursuit in 14 years without their star playmaker. Just as the exit creates a challenge for Cronk (and a risk to his personal legacy), it also leaves Smith with a much tougher assignment than he has been used to. Conquering the league once again, this time without an elite half steering the ship, would add further weight to the argument that Smith is the best to ever do it.

Ironically, there’s a good chance the Cowboys and Storm will meet at the business end of the year. At that point, we may have to revisit this discussion and it again might be all on the line.

For what it’s worth, Thurston won the one and only testimonial match, whatever that means.

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