The ‘genius’ lesson JT and Benji can teach Ponga
THE hype around the game's latest "biggest thing" Kalyn Ponga, and the nostalgia around two of the NRL's most favourite sons Johnathan Thurston and Benji Marshall coming head-to-head for perhaps the last time on Thursday night, got me thinking about the parade of whiz kids we've seen over the years.
How the start of their journeys began so similarly, yet their final destinations were so far apart.
And the reason why some go all the way. Brad Fittler, Andrew Ettingshausen, Andrew Farrar, Greg Alexander, Trent Barrett, Benny Elias, Craig Young and Greg Inglis were schoolboy stars of the highest order.
Yet if you go through those old schoolboy books, you will find many more who never reached the heights expected of them.
Then I thought about Danny Buderus's autobiography, entitled "Talent Is Not Enough".
The answer lies right there.
The names of the "next best" are aplenty. To press his point in his book, Buderus used Owen Craigie as the greatest example of raw talent never being enough.
The irony is that Ponga is rated the greatest flash talent at Newcastle since Craigie appeared in 1997 - a player some say had more natural ability than Andrew Johns.
Craigie displayed such freakish skills, he was part of the Knights' first premiership at 19, with the world predicted for him.
"He could break tackles with his strength, step or speed; he could kick and regather like no player I've ever seen; his overall skills package was extraordinary," Buderus wrote.
Yet Craigie's career fizzled out, like many others.
"His physique was always going to be something he had to battle against as he got older and I just think such natural-gifted players as he was don't always come to grips with how hard they still have to work to maintain that boom-boom-boy tag," Buderus wrote.
Which brings us back to Marshall and Thurston and how they respect, still to this day, that talent is not enough.
It is a testament to both that they are the last remaining members of the Wests Tigers and North Queensland teams from that glorious grand final night 13 years ago.
Chris Heighington, now at Newcastle, is the only other player from the 2005 decider still kicking around in the NRL, while Robbie Farah is back playing NSW Cup.
Marshall is now 33. Thurston turned 35 on Anzac Day.
Heighington actually made the comment last week that Ponga was "probably better than Benji" at the same age.
Heighington would not have intended it as an insult to his former teammate.
But as brilliant as the 20-year-old Knights fullback is right now, let's see how he's travelling come 2030, and beyond.
Because that is when his legacy will be measured in its entirety.
How good is not what they can do on their best day, but what they produce every other day. Year after year, until the word "great" can genuinely be a prefix to their surname.
In 2005, Marshall and Thurston were among the flashiest young players in the game. But what ended up sustaining their careers was hard work as much as it ever was pure footballing potential.
They both have been through some tough times, but perseverance was just as much their strength.
The real beauty watching Benji today is not so much about reflecting on his past, as much as it is admiring the way he has gone about evolving his game, changing to continually fight for his footballing existence. For when Marshall left the Tigers back in 2013, his career looked done and dusted.
Instead, it is the way he has answered the challenge put to him is a tremendous insight into his champion qualities.
Thurston is going through an equally difficult time as he tries to recapture his best after coming back from the shoulder injury that wiped him out of last year.
But the thing about him is that he never stops working to be his best. Even now, in his 17th NRL season, Thurston is still the last player to walk off the park after every training session.
Religiously, he stays behind to practise his kicking game for at least half an hour. Every day.
It's been five years since Benji last played at the Tigers' spiritual home, while this will be the last time Thurston gets to experience this great old suburban ground in his farewell season.
Sure, if the stars align, Marshall and Thurston could play again at some stage in this year's finals series. If not, we will never see them together again on a rugby league field after this.
Benji was the same age as Ponga is now when he produced that magical flick pass for Pat Richards that has been etched into grand final folklore.
Yet while he is no longer that same player he once was, he has come back to put the exclamation point on his career.
Like Ivan Cleary said on Wednesday, watching these two is still worth the price of admission.
"There is lots of different reasons you want to come along to the footy, but that is a pretty good one, I reckon," the Tigers coach said.
So enjoy tonight, because chances are this will be the last time we see Benji and JT together in action.
And from next year, we can settle in and see where Ponga and others like him take our
enduring footy memories.
One thing is for sure, talent alone won't be enough.