Battle for milestone mark

National Rugby League superstars and close mates Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith will be locked in an intriguing battle for the opening round despite being more than 2,000km apart.

On Saturday, Thurston’s North Queensland Toyota Cowboys host the Canberra Raiders to kick off the 2017 season, while 24 hours earlier, Smith’s Melbourne Storm take on the Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground in Sydney.

This battle will be played out between the goal posts as both goal-kicking skippers strive to be the fifth man in NRL history to score 2,000 career points.

Smith (1,993) will get first crack at the record, with Hazem El Masri (2,418), Andrew Johns (2,176), Jason Taylor (2,107) and Daryl Halligan (2,034) the only players to have gone past 2,000 points.

If Smith pilots over four goals or scores a brace of tries – or any relevant combination thereof – in his 336th game, he’ll beat Thurston to the mark, the Cowboys co-captain Thurston slightly better placed at 1,995 career points.

“It’ll be a good little race between me and Smithy, and hopefully we can both pass the milestone mark this round,” said Thurston, who is himself edging towards the 300-game mark (292).

“You never play for individual milestones, but it’d be good to get one up on him.”

Thurston’s points consist of 85 tries, 820 goals and 15 field goals, with the bulk of them (1,955) scored during his 12-year stint as a Cowboy.

One-club man Smith has scored 40 tries, kicked 915 goals and piloted over three field goals in 15 seasons.

Turning his attention to Saturday’s season-opener against the Raiders, Thurston said he and his teammates were chomping at the bit to get their season underway in front of their passionate members and supporters.

“The boys are jumping out of their skin obviously. They’ve been training for a long time, we’ve been practising a few things now and they’re looking forward to Saturday,” he said.

“We’re in a good head space at the moment and now it’s time to put what we’ve been practising in the pre-season into effect.”

Thurston said the team was physically in good shape after two trial matches – against the Roosters and Tigers – with the Raiders game on Saturday a perfect chance to improve on their game play.

“We weren’t really happy with (our attacking structure) against the Tigers but we’ve been working on those things on the training field and look forward to putting what we’ve trained for out on the field.”

Thurston will lead a Cowboys team featuring many familiar faces from the previous two seasons, with former Storm utility Ben Hampton set to make his club debut in the No.14 jersey off the bench.

The Cowboys will trim their 21-man squad down to 19 on Friday, with Javid Bowen and Kalyn Ponga seemingly locked in a two-way battle for that left wing position should incumbent Antonio Winterstein – who was named in the side – succumb to an ankle injury.

The game kicks off at 6pm at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday 4 March.