NRL: No winner in Joey vs JT debate

Opinion: @Hayward_AdamK

During the two-month suspension of the 2020 NRL season, the rugby league community were killing time by engaging in conversations and debates on social media over many various footy related topics, but perhaps no topic was more hotly debated than who was the better halfback between Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston.

I’ve been watching rugby league for 30 of my 36 years on earth and had the privilege of being able to follow the careers of both legends affectionately known as ‘Joey’ and ‘JT’.  

So who’s better?

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In my opinion, it merely comes down to subjective opinion. The better player is in the eye of the beholder. If you think Joey was better, then Joey was better. If you think JT was better, then JT was better.

From observation, most arguments I’ve seen are flawed with bias, usually depending on which side of the Queensland-New South Wales border you’re from.

NRL.com ran a fan-poll in May, 2020 on its website and social media platforms which drew 136,000 total votes to determine the best halfback of the past 30 years – with a shortlist of the top 10 halfbacks, JT and Joey dominated the poll but it was JT who edged out Joey with 42% of the vote to Joey’s 36% to be crowned the best halfback of the past three decades.

But why was JT voted as the greatest? Because more Queenslander’s voted in the poll? Could it have been due to many votes from younger fans who never saw Joey play while in his prime? Or was it because he was genuinely better than Joey?

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I want to dismiss a couple of common, but silly arguments made by fans as to why they think Joey or JT was the better playmaker.

Those in favour of JT will argue he is better because Joey admitted to being a regular user of recreational drugs throughout his playing career. The truth is, taking ecstasy, which can remain detectable in a user’s blood for up to 48 hours, on the night after a game wouldn’t have had any bearing on his performance on the following weekend.

On the other side of the coin, those who favour Joey will argue he’s better because he was a better defender. But when it comes to defensive statistics, there wasn’t a big difference between him and JT.

Joey was blessed with a solid build and a huge backside, so he was physically able to flattened opposition back-rowers and had a flawless tackling technique.

JT wasn’t so blessed physically. He was skinny with chicken legs, had blokes twice his size targeting him every game he ever played, but he often made big tackles of his own throughout his career. He would never have made it to first grade if he could not make a tackle.

Defence is more than just making the tackle, it’s also about executing defensive structure, reading the oppositions attacking plays and communication with the players beside you. Joey could put on a glorious hit, but I remember Allan Langer bamboozling him in defence on a number of occasions.

Andrew JohnsCareer StatsJohnathan Thurston
249Games323
61.85%Win percentage55.11%
2176 (4th all-time)Points2222 (third all-time)
80Tries 90
917/1235 (74.25%)Goals923/1161 (79.50%)
2 (1997, 2001)Premierships 2 (2004, 2015)
Source: Rugby League Project as of May, 2020

Although JT holds better numbers in many different statistics, it should be noted that Joey’s career was cut short due to a neck injury at the age of just 32. If it weren’t for injuries, he could have played on for another two or three years and the gap between those statistics might be more even.

It could be argued that Joey had a superior win percentage because he played in a better team stacked with rep players, but he also made those around him better players. JT’s win percentage took a hit between 2008 and 2010 playing with a very ordinary Cowboys outfit.

Joey finished his remarkable career as the greatest points scorer in premiership history (currently fourth on the all-time points scoring list) and most likely would have cruised past JT’s 2222 career points if he hadn’t been forced to prematurely retire. JT finished with a superior goal kicking percentage.

Andrew Johns Individual Accolades Johnathan Thurston
3 (1998, 1999, 2002)Dally M Medal 4 (2005, 2007, 2014, 2015)
4 (Halfback)Dally M Positional Awards7 (4 Halfback and 3 Five-Eight)
2 (1999, 2001)Golden Boot3 (2011, 2013, 2015)
1 (2001)Clive Churchill1 (2015)
5Proven Summons Medal 2
2012 (The eighth)ImmortalIn waiting
Source: Rugby League Project

JT again edges Joey in individual accolades to finish with the better career, but again, had Joey not been forced to retire, his list of accolades might be more even with JT’s.

JT could consider himself lucky to win the 2005 Dally M medal after Joey went down injured, but the fact JT did win the award for the NRL’s best and fairest in his first season as a regular first grader after moving to the Cowboys from the Bulldogs is an incredible achievement.

JT’s accolades are even more astounding when you consider he played in the same era as Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis. Joey became the eighth immortal in 2008 and it’s a forgone conclusion that JT will join him once he’s eligible.

Andrew JohnsState of Origin StatsJohnathan Thurston
23Origins37 (second of all-time)
13Game wins24 (second of all-time)
5Series wins11
4Man of the Match 5
4Tries5
37Goals99 (Origin record)
4 (Origin record)Field Goals2
94Points220 (Origin record)
*3 games for NSW Country
Source: Rugby League Project

JT enjoyed one of the most successful origin careers of all-time and holds several records including most consecutive matches played (36), most goals and most points. He was a key part of Queensland’s “dynasty” period from 2006 to 2017 and was regarded by former Queensland captain Cameron Smith, as the greatest player to ever wear the Maroons jersey.

I don’t think anyone nailed more clutch moments in origin than JT.

His field goal to send game one, 2005 into golden point; his sideline conversion to send game one, 2006 into golden point; his show and go followed by a pinpoint pass at full speed to send Brent Tate on a long range try in game three, 2006 (which I personally consider the biggest play in all of Queensland’s “dynasty” period); the dummy and linebreak to put Billy Slater over to score to seal the series in game three, 2008 and his sideline conversion to win game two, 2017 which enabled Queensland to win that series.

But Joey’s performances in games two and three in 2005 after a long layoff with injury, will go down in history as arguably, or maybe no argument, the greatest individual performances in origin history to lead the Blues to a series win after being 0-1 down. It was a hell of an origin lesson to a young JT in his debut series.

However Joey’s origin career was a bit of a mixed bag.

Joey made his debut in 1995 after incumbent halfback Ricky Stuart was not considered due to his affiliation with the Super League. His first origin series was a series to forget with “Fatty’s no-names” white washing the Blues 3-zip. He was brilliant in 1996 in the #9 jersey. His 1997 series was interrupted with injury and game one, 1998 was a night he’d rather forget after the Blues scored more tries than the Maroons, but a wayward night with the boot cost his side the match and the series.

Joey’s origin career was often interrupted by injury, missing the 2001 series which the Blues lost and the 2004 series. 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2005 is when we saw the best of Joey, contributing to three series wins, two draws and no losses. So again, had Joey had better luck with injuries, his origin stats would likely be more even with JT’s.

Andrew Johns Test StatsJohnathan Thurston
23Tests 38
20Wins35
2 (1995, 2000)World Cup wins1 (2013)
9Tries13
66Goals165 (Australian record)
168Points382 (Australian record)
Source: Rugby League Project

Joey played 10 of his 23 tests at hooker, but also won two world cups at hooker. It’s a testament to his talents that he could dominate at the highest level in two positions, including a man of the match performance in the #9 jersey in the 1995 World Cup Final.

Again JT holds the better international career with point scoring records, but is pipped by Joey with two World Cup wins to one. JT was part of the famous 2008 final loss to New Zealand, but tasted sweet redemption in a man of the match performance in the final of the 2013 World Cup. Unfortunately for JT, he missed Australia’s 2017 World Cup triumph through injury in what would have been his representative swansong before retirement.

So overall, JT’s stats are superior, but in my subjective opinion, that doesn’t necessarily make him the superior player, as stats will never tell the full story.

Let me explain why I believe there is no winner in this debate and why I believe Joey and JT are equals.

Joey was innovative with his unique kicking game; the cross field kick, banana kick, the weaponizing of Ricky Stuart’s spiral bomb and he was credited with changing the way halfbacks played.

JT perfected what Joey had started. Opposition defences had adapted to Joey’s innovation and JT had the ability to stay ahead of the curve for his entire career. Another way he stayed ahead of that curve was the way he utilized and combined with his fullback (Matt Bowen) in a way no other playmaker could and how he single-handedly made Gavin Cooper the most prolific try scoring back rower in the competition.

JT also gave new hope to the undersized kids. Often told he was too small and would never make it to first grade because of his lack of size, JT is proof that size doesn’t matter.

Both players are of equal toughness.

As mentioned, as a halfback, Joey would often flatten opposition back rowers in defence, while not many halfbacks had the courage to engage the defensive line as often as JT. I don’t think I ever saw a player get smashed after, or in the act of passing, as often as JT did every game he played – and he’d always get back up and engage the line again and again.

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Both Joey and JT stood out above the rest as far as competitiveness and the will-to-win during their eras.

If you watched the Michael Jordan documentary series, comparing Joey and JT to the great ‘MJ’ is a fair comparison in my opinion, which explains why they were so successful and regarded as the best.

Both had unrivaled vision.

Not only did both players have the ability to flawlessly execute their attacking structures, they had the ability to read and manipulate the defence, play what’s in front of them and take advantage of opportunities. They could create something out of nothing, and not only think two plays ahead, but they could use multiple sets and even half a game to setup the opposition defence for a big play.

The 1997 and 2001 Grand Finals will forever be remembered for Joey’s greatness.

In 1997, Joey put his career on-the-line by playing with broken ribs and a punctured lung. He went on to set up Darren Albert with one of the most iconic plays in grand final history to win a maiden premiership for his Newcastle Knights in the dying minutes.

The 2001 grand final saw Joey’s Knights take on the stand out team of that season, the minor premiers and heavily favoured Parramatta Eels. The only reason why the Eels didn’t break their premiership drought that night, was a Clive Churchill performance from the great Andrew Johns.

JT’s 2015 season stands out like nothing I’ve seen from any other player. He came up with the big plays to steal victories in a the last minute, literally, on a number of occasions. He also lead his side to comeback win after comeback win and I’m not talking about six or 10 point deficits, he and his Cowboys chased down 18-24 point deficits several times as well as nailing clutch field goals either on the fulltime siren or golden point extra time.

Most notably, JT’s Cowboys recorded the second biggest comeback win in premiership history against the Eels. Trailing 30-6 in the second half, the Cowboys scored five tries in 11 minutes. JT set up four of those tries and nailed sideline conversion after sideline conversion to win.

He then went on to win the 2015 Dally M medal by a record 11 votes and kick the winning field goal in golden point of the 2015 Grand Final to “fulfill his destiny” and finally deliver North Queensland their maiden premiership.

Great halves like Lewis, Cronk, Lockyer, Langer, Stuart, Sterling etc – all belong in the upper echelons of the greatest playmakers of all time – but Joey and JT are in a league of their own.

Feature photo courtesy of: NAPARAZZI