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Opinion: Enough drama, let the game be the finals focus

Rugby league's star players and entertainers need to reclaim the headlines this weekend so the media and the public focus turns to what is happening on the football field, not in the boardrooms or behind closed doors in secret meetings.

With three rounds of the 2018 minor premiership remaining, the finals are in danger of being overshadowed by off-field coaching dramas surrounding the possible movements of big names like Wayne Bennett, Ivan Cleary and Trent Barrett, whose futures remain clouded.

There has been a great deal of media speculation in recent weeks about who is going where and when, but very little substance or supportive evidence to back it up.

Cleary came out publicly, albeit a little late at the weekend, denying had had any contact with Penrith about returning to the foot of the mountains to replace sacked coach Anthony Griffin, while the latest on Bennett is that he has had a major falling out with his long-time friend and Brisbane Broncos chief executive Paul White.

Griffin defended his coaching style at the Panthers in a professional manner saying his demise was due to a clash of coaching philosophies with the club's chief powerbroker Gus Gould.

Gould though didn't hold back in his response, savaging Griffin, attacking him on a number of fronts, even though late last year he was the one who went to Griffin with a two-year coaching extension.

This drama may yet have another twist or two to play out yet.

If reports of a total breakdown between Bennett and White at Red Hill are correct, then Bennett could be on the open market as early as next season, opening up a number of various scenarios.

Even at 67, Bennett's coaching results still stack up and there's little chance of him ending up at his local Centrelink office.

Brisbane, who've been a frustrating team to follow this season, is suddenly in danger of falling out of the top eight and missing the finals altogether should they lose their last three games, or even possibly two of them.

They have a tough closing draw against the table-topping Rabbits at home this weekend, followed by a daunting clash with the Roosters and finally a round 25 showdown at home against Manly, which could well decide their 2018 fate.

If Brisbane misses the finals then Bennett could be out the door.

All this makes for interesting water cooler and pub arguments.

But what the game needs right now is for fans to be talking about the teams and their stars and looking forward to the hype of playing finals football.

The spotlight has to turn to rising stars like Roosters young gun Latrell Mitchell and Panther's halfback Nathan Cleary and the gifted players who create a buzz - Valentine Holmes, James Maloney, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the like.

As it does most years, the game will farewell some players - in fact, it is losing two of its most magnificent performers of all-time, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater.

While Slater will play finals football for the Storm next month, sadly JT will not take part in the end of season action.

Thurston's farewell game for the North Queensland Cowboys will be against the Titans at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast on September 1.

Such is Thurston's standing in the game, the stadium looks set to sell out, with the possibility of the ground record of 27,272, set when the Titans played Brisbane in the 2009 finals series,being broken in a low-key game by two clubs out of finals contention.

Hopefully, the Cowboys can give JT one last special victory to remember in his 321st first-grade game and his 292nd for the club he led to its only premiership in 2015.

Thurston is a player loved and admired by rugby league fans, not just Cowboy's supporters.

The reason is simple.

He competes every week, he plays the game in the right spirit, he never quits and he is respected by all fair-minded followers of the game.

A highly passionate supporter sent a letter to QRL media this week suggesting a way in which rugby league could honour Thurston's contribution to the game, not just on the field but also off it.

"Thurston has given not just me, but many others countless moments and hours of joy with his feats on the field," rugby league fan Brendan Beale told QRL Media.

"We have also been privileged to witness what JT does off the field, with community engagement and volunteer work just to name a few.

"His gesture in picking up his kicking tee and handing it to the ball boy games and afterwards giving his headgear and sometimes his boots away to fans, regardless of which team they support, makes me proud to be a lover of this game."

Beale had a suggestion for the NRL to consider as a way for all NRL clubs to play a part in thanking Thurston for his remarkable contribution.

"It would be wonderful if, for the for the final round, none of the other 15 NRL clubs wore the No.7 jumper, giving Thurston sole rights to wear it in the very last appearance of his NRL career," Beale wrote.

"It would be a mark of respect for all he has done and contributed to his club, state, and country, over all those years.

"I am sure that none of the other 15 NRL clubs would begrudge him that honour."