JT Eyes NRL Return as Cowboys Battle Broncos for Top 4
Injured North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston is eyeing a 2011 NRL return earlier than first expected, the highly-capped test star hoping to get back to business in Round 23 for the Cowboys crucial clash against the Brisbane Broncos.
While the top three spots on this season’s NRL Ladder at the end of the 26 regular rounds will belong to the Storm, Sea Eagles and Dragons – not necessarily in that order – the battle for the final spot in the Top 4 has become an intriguing local showdown between Brisbane and North Queensland.
When champion Queensland Maroons play-maker Thurston suffered a nasty knee injury in the final quarter of this year’s monumental State of Origin decider, the series won for a sixth successive time by Queensland giving retiring captain Darren Lockyer the perfect goodbye, it was thought the Cowboys chances of a top four finish in the 2011 NRL Telstra Premiership had gone out the window.
North Queensland, however, have dug deep and won two of their three matches since JT’s sidelining.
In Round 18 they enjoyed a big upset win over the Knights 22 – 12 in Newcastle, but suffered a setback when going down 38 – 18 to the Tigers at Dairy Farmers Stadium the next week.
They bounced back last Saturday night, however, getting up 28 – 20 over the Titans and are now looking to go back-to-back in their Round 21 home game against the ninth-ranked Penrith Panthers.
Defeating the Gold Coast last week saw the Cowboys snare fourth spot from Brisbane, the Broncos dropping to fifth place thanks to their embarrassing 26 – 6 defeat to Premiership frontrunners Melbourne Storm.
Thurston lined up in a Cowboys training session for the first time since his injury on Wednesday and is hopeful of an August 12 return to take on Brisbane in front of a roaring home crowd at Dairy Farmer Stadium.
“It was a good feeling to be back out on the training paddock,” Thurston said.
“It has been a while since I had – it was like being a little kid again.
“It was nothing too strenuous but it (the knee) has pulled up alright.”
While originally given a recovery period of six weeks, JT’s rapid progress has him planning a return a week earlier than first scheduled.
“It was a pretty severe bone bruising that I had, that’s what is causing most of the pain,” he explained.
“If I look to push it and it starts hurting I will have to step back.
“When I start to intensify training sessions I will have a better idea of where it is at.”
Cowboys and Broncos are now tied on 28 competition points, four clear of the New Zealand Warriors who are currently in sixth spot with 24 points.
Tonight Brisbane will look to move towards a home game in the September semis by defeating the Cronulla Sharks at Suncorp Stadium.
It is a must-win for Brisbane to keep their top-four aspirations alive and with Cronulla captain Paul Gallen likely to take his spot in the Sharks squad, Broncos coach Anthony Griffin knows it won’t be an easy win by any means.
Gallen is suffering a niggling injury to his calf muscle, but is expected to play through the pain tonight setting up the first battle of the Origin skippers – Lockyer v Gallen – since the series finale at the start of the month.
“We haven’t got any word,” Griffin said in regards to whether Gallen was a definite starter or not.
“I just know he’s a real tough competitor and if he’s anywhere near close to playing, he’ll be playing.
“We’re preparing as if he’ll be playing.”
The Sharks had their purple patch of form well and truly torn to pieces when going down by big margins to the Dragons and then Newcastle in the past two weeks, but Griffin still expects them to bring their best to Brisbane.
“Cronulla are a very difficult side to play, they’re very strong in the forwards and they play a very physical and grinding game.
“You have to have a tough attitude to get into mix with them.
“They’re hard to shut down, they’ve got a lot of offloads in them and it’s going to be a really gruelling battle in the middle.”