Last week, Cooper Cronk announced that he’ll be leaving the Melbourne Storm at the end of the 2017 season and moving to Sydney. The Storm, while no doubt disappointed, didn’t seem particularly concerned by the news. There was a sense of ‘business as usual’ coming out of Melbourne. Storm coach Craig Bellamy said that they planned to have a meeting to discuss what to do next, and that even then, “whatever comes out of that meeting, that’s not going to be 100 percent what’s going to happen”. This was refreshingly candid from the Storm boss, but also surprisingly calm. But then again, why wouldn’t they be?
1998 was unusual in that it saw not one, but two history changing moments of great sporting or cultural significance. The first was the foundation of the Melbourne Storm who, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, would go on to become the most consistently successful Australian sporting franchise of the two decades that followed. The other great moment in history was the release of the Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy Sliding Doors, which featured just the right blend of plot twists, interesting characters and light humour to set a cinematic bar that all other films have since aspired to.* In the film, we follow the story of Paltrow’s character, following two different paths – one in which she catches her partner having an affair and one in which she doesn’t. It’s brilliant.
But back to the Melbourne Storm. Since their inception 20 seasons ago, the Storm have enjoyed unparalleled success, winning two premierships, and missing the finals on just three occassions in two decades. However, the Storm have also had the luxury of having required just three first-choice starting halfbacks. Yes, you read that correctly. Three.
At the conclusion of the Super League War in 1997, several clubs were killed as part of the peace deal. These included the Western Reds, South Queensland Crushers and the Hunter Mariners. From the ashes of these clubs rose the Melbourne Storm, who cherry-picked some of their best players to form the basis of their maiden squad. Their first halfback was one such player – Brett Kimmorley. Kimmorley was a little halfback from the Hunter, who’d played 6 matches for the Knights, and a further 10 at the Mariners, after he usurped starting halfback Noel Goldthorpe midway through 1997 (remember that name). It wasn’t until he arrived at the Storm however, that Kimmorley became a household name, appearing for both New South Wales and Australia. He’d go on to make 79 appearances for the Storm, before leaving at the end of 2000 for the Northern Eagles. His arrival made the Eagles’ halfback surplus to requirements, and the Storm happily scooped him up. His name was Matt Orford.
Orford had made just 11 first grade appearances at that point, in his case after taking over mid-season from starting halfback Jason Taylor. At the Storm though, he immediately cemented a place in first grade, making 120 first grade appearances for Melbourne before Manly came along and brought him back to the Northern Beaches. At that point, the Storm looked inward for their next halfback, and went with a bloke who’d been at the club for the past two seasons, and made 33 appearances – almost exclusively as a utility off the bench. His name was Cooper Cronk, and a further 270-something matches, 6 Grand Finals and 1 Premiership later, his time is finally drawing to a close.
But what if the Storm hadn’t had the initial opportunity to build a squad from the wreckage of three other clubs, and had instead had to join the NRL in addition to three other clubs? Would they have had the same success? And, specifically, would they have had the same blessed run of halfbacks? Fortunately, history allows us to get a glimpse of this Sliding Doors alternate reality. You see, we need only look 2600 kilometres north to the home of that other great halfback of the past twenty years, Johnathan Thurston. Because in 1995, the Cowboys did exactly that. And their results were indeed entirely different.
Which brings us to the Thurston Eleven. Whereas the Storm featured just two long-term halfbacks before they landed on a Queensland legend, the Cowboys went through a whopping eleven halfbacks while searching for a winning combination (and had to play a further four players there out of position due to injury**) before Thurston fell into their lap (as an aside, both of those Storm halfbacks played more matches than any Cowboys halfback pre-2005). Through this era, the Cowboys would win just 69 matches in 10 seasons (for a winning percentage of a measly 30%), and collected three wooden spoons. Now, we know what you’re thinking: “Eleven halfbacks? Rubbish. I don’t remember any of them.” Well that, dear reader, is precisely the point.
The Thurston Eleven
1. Laurie Spina – 11 matches
Laurie Spina was (and indeed, still is) an enormously popular figure in North Queensland, having made his name playing locally for Herbert River. He came to Sydney in 1983, and played 158 first grade matches for the Bears, Roosters and Sharks, before returning to North Queensland in 1991. When the Cowboys were formed in 1995, Spina was plucked back out of the local competition at the ripe old age of 32. He started 11 matches at halfback, winning just one.
2. Ian Dunemann – 17 matches
Ian Dunemann made 32 appearances for the Cowboys over a period of three years, bouncing backwards and forwards between five-eighth, halfback and the bench. In the 17 matches that he wore the number 7, the Cowboys won just 5 games. Dunemann is best known for being the brother of journeyman (and fellow Cowboys halfback) Andrew Dunemann. If you don’t remember who Andrew Dunemann was, you might as well just skip ahead to the next one, as Ian never achieved anything of significance.
3. Jason Martin – 14 matches
Martin was a popular young halfback who came through the grades at the North Sydney Bears. He moved to the Knights in 1993, where he split time with Matthew Rodwell, before they were both displaced by Andrew Johns. He spent two seasons at the Cowboys, starting 14 matches at halfback and winning just two. Martin then moved to the English Super League to continue his career.
4. Andrew Dunemann – 13 matches
The afore-mentioned journeyman halfback and brother of Ian, Dunemann bounced around the league between Gold Coast, North Queensland and South Sydney, before heading to the UK where he finally established himself at the top level. He started 13 matches at halfback for the Cows, winning three. He returned to Australia in 2007 for a swansong with the Raiders, with whom he played two games before retiring.
5. Jason Ferris – 26 matches
Ferris played 123 first grade games in Australia for Canberra, North Queensland, Cronulla and Manly. He’s perhaps best known to Australian fans from his 3 seasons at the Sharks, where he played for their minor premier team in 1999. Before that though, he started 26 matches at halfback for the Cowboys in 1997-98, winning 10.
6. Denny Lambert – 1 match
At the end of 1998, with the season lost and halfback Jason Ferris headed to Cronulla, then-coach Tim Sheens decided to look to the future, handing a first grade debut to 17-year-old Denny Lambert. The future didn’t look great, with the Cowboys losing 62-0 to North Sydney. Lambert never played first grade again.***
7. Paul Green – 19 matches
With Ferris gone to Cronulla, North Queensland got one going the other way, signing long-time Sharks halfback and 1995 Rothmans Medal-winner Paul Green. Green would play two seasons at North Queensland, and was even selected for the Maroons during his time in Townsville. Unfortunately that personal success didn’t translate to the team, who won just 4 of 19 games with Green at halfback.
8. Noel Goldthorpe – 20 matches
Goldthorpe had a long, successful career in Australia, playing 183 first grade games across 11 seasons for Wests, St George, Hunter, Adelaide and finally, North Queensland. After he was displaced by Brett Kimmorley at the Mariners, Goldthorpe spent a season at the Adelaide Rams before they, too, were wound up, allowing the 29-year-old to be snapped up by the Cowboys. He played 35 games for the Cows, but started just 20 at halfback. Of those, the Cowboys won only 5.
9. Scott Prince – 1 match
Once considered the great white hope for North Queensland, Prince broke Cowboy hearts when he left the North Queensland club at the end of 2000 to sign with the rival Broncos. Though he made 53 appearances for the Cowboys, he started just one at halfback, a narrow loss to the Dragons in 1999. After leaving the Cowboys, Prince would go to on play for Queensland and Australia, and win a Grand Final with the Tigers.
10. Nathan Fien – 77 matches
The closest thing the Cowboys had to a long-term halfback prior to the arrival of Thurston, Fien started 77 matches in the number 7 between 2000 and 2004, winning just 27. Like Green, he was selected for Queensland during his time at the Cowboys despite their losing record, though it wasn’t until he switched to hooker at the Warriors that he really found his niche at the top level. Fans may remember him as the main protagonist in “Granny-gate”, in which he produced a birth certificate for a Kiwi “Granny” in order to play for their Test team, only for her to turn out to be his “Great Granny” (scandal!). He’d eventually play for the Kiwis through residency anyway, and went on to play 20 Tests, including playing halfback in their 2008 World Cup victory over Australia.
11. Chris Sheppard – 30 matches
Finally, Chris Sheppard closes out the Thurston Eleven (he actually started five games at halfback after Thurston’s arrival, before being displaced by Thurston and Brett Firman). He played 55 matches for the Cowboys between 2001 and 2004, starting 30 at halfback. Of those, the Cowboys won 11. With the writing on the wall, he headed for the Dragons mid-way through 2005, but played just 4 games at St George Illawarra before returning for a farewell season with the Cowboys in 2008. He played just one match that year. They lost.
Now, in 2017, both the Storm and the Cowboys have found themselves once again in a similar spot, having enjoyed over a decade of service from two of the sport’s greatest ever halfbacks. However, in another Sliding Doors-moment, the two teams’ paths will diverge once again. While Cronk has declared that in 2018 he’ll be returning to Sydney – giving the Storm the opportunity to replace him from the abundance of halves available this year – Thurston has been extended for one extra year, completely altering the options from which to replace him. Would the Cowboys be better served with Thurston retiring in 2017 or 2018? The difference could be very, very stark indeed.
*This author has not actually seen Sliding Doors.
**These players were utility hooker John Doyle, back-rower Jeremy Schloss, hooker Aaron Payne and fullback Matt Bowen.
***Though he only played a single first grade match, Lambert still managed a Walters Number of 1, as Kevin’s brother Steve played hooker for the Cowboys in that match.