Another Kind of Heaven

The highest individual honour in Northern Territory Rugby League is the Frank Johnson Medal and is awarded to the Best and Fairest player in the Darwin Rugby League.

Frank Johnson was a tireless servant of the game. Originally playing seniors for the Port Kembla Blacks in the Illawarra at the age of 16 he quickly established a reputation as one of the best young players on the South Coast. A wily rake, Johnson was peerless in the ancient art of ball-winning. Wearing his trademark headgear he was never far from the ball in open play. In 1946 he was part of the first Southern Division teams to beat Great Britain.

Frank went on to play 23 games for St George, 118 for Newtown (who he captained in his final years), 5 for NSW and toured with the Kangaroos in 1948. Coaching Newtown in 1953 he was persuaded to return from retirement in 1954 taking them to the Grand Final that they lost to Souths; after which he finally retired for good.

Joining Wollongong Wests as coach in 1957 he took them to their maiden premiership in his first year as coach. He was a founding member of the NSWRL Coaching Panel and became Director of coaching in 1974. It was during this tenure with the panel that he answered the call for the development of league in the territory and from 1970 to 1975 he coached the Darwin and Northern Territory teams.

With Frank at the helm NT won matches against Western Australia in 1971, 1972 and 1974. He was honoured with life membership of the NSWRL and presented with an Order of Australia Medal. He passed away in 1993 and is rightly remembered as a man who fostered the great game in NT which receives its first game of top flight rugby league tonight in 17 years – Roosters v Cowboys.

The previous venture into the Top End was 17 years ago when the Western Suburbs Magpies thrashed the Sydney Roosters 44-16. The Magpies team contained the likes of Andrew Leeds, Steve Georgallis, Cherry Mescia, Jim Serdaris and Paul Langmack and were coached by Tommy Raudonikis. The hapless Roosters included Luke Ricketson (at centre), Andrew Walker, Adrian Lam, Tony Iro and Nigel Gaffey and were coached by “Gus” Gould.

In 2012, the Roosters wins against Souths, Canberra, and New Zealand were not convincing by any stretch while the Cowboys also find themselves in Darwin with something to prove despite holding off the otherwise undefeated Broncos in Round 2.

But this game would belong to two of Northern Australia’s heroes Jonathan Thurston and Matt Bowen.

In the 12th minute they would combine in a standard backline movement to send Antonio Winterstein over in the corner for his second try of the match.

In the 19th the Cowboys take advantage of a ricochet off a general play kick to gain 40m and a restart. Off the next tackle with the Roosters still getting set defensively Thurston performs an improv run-around with Matt Bowen and distributes to a partially unmarked Faifai Loa who, using the dexterity of a Romanian gymnast on a pommel horse, manages to place the ball in the corner of “end zone” while 99% of his body hovers above “no mans land”.

Cowboys are ahead of the clock. The Roosters appear typically helpless when confronted with skill.

In the 28th, Thurston banana kicks at 45 degrees to his running direction, to a running Matt Bowen who goes over untouched under the posts.

Still ahead of the clock. Still typically helpless.

After a half time confrontation with Brian Smith, the Roosters mount a comeback which is ultimately stifled in the 65th minute when again Thurston combines with Bowen to send Taumalolo over for another. The sliding defence of the Roosters no match for the change of direction applied by the big Kiwi.

Thurston puts Big T through anther gap and, looking like Dean Lukin running late for work, the big man strolls over.

Not satisfied with the work of the scorekeeper to date, Thurston swoops on a loose ball and finds his Townsville Glimmer Twin and Bowen is over. Not to be outdone Bowen converts from the sideline.

Tonight the Cowboys served notice of their capability albeit against a Roosters side which a red-headed PM might suggest had “lost its way”.

As wily as he was, Frank Johnson was cheering on Thurston and Matty Bowen in another kind of heaven.

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