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NRL Talking Points: Johnathan Thurston returns to action, Billy Slater suffers setback
Last Updated: 06/03/18 7:22pm
The 2018 NRL season kicks off on Thursday and it's going to be huge as Sky Sports gears up to broadcast the sport for the first time in over a decade. Jenna Brooks has the latest as Johnathan Thurston prepares for a milestone match, plus a setback for Billy Slater
Johnathan Thurston returns to the game on Friday for the first time since undergoing major shoulder surgery last year.
The Cowboys match against Cronulla is live on Sky Sports and will be the North Queensland co-captain's 300th NRL game.
In the wake of his season-ending injury last year, Thurston has called for more protection on playmakers. He wants a five-minute sin-bin introduced for any late hits.
"The officials need to be better at identifying it. We've got two touch judges, we have two referees on the field, they need to be seeing what's going on," Thurston said. "I'm talking when you pass the ball, your body's relaxed and you get whacked from behind, which gives you that whiplash effect of the neck. That's what we need to get out of the game."
The star playmaker is set to retire at the end of this season and the Cowboys have already started planning for life after Thurston. The club have secured the services of Michael Morgan for a further five-years, with the deal reported to be worth almost £3m.
Morgan, who is 26-years old, has represented both Queensland and Australia and led North Queensland to just their third grand final last year.
Morgan might not be the only player to put pen to paper at the Cowboys. Coach Paul Green has confirmed the clubs interest in Todd Carney.
"All I'll say on Todd Carney is the club are investigating the possibility of Todd playing here, there's obviously a fair bit that needs to go into that before we get to that point," Green said.
Carney is currently living in Cairns, playing for the Northern Pride, which is the feeder club to the Cowboys.
On Friday England international Chris Heighington will do something never before done.
Newcastle host Manly on Friday in round one of the new season, which you can see live on Sky Sports and the forward is set to make his debut for the Knights.
If he does, at the age of 36, he is the oldest to make his debut for Newcastle and will also become the oldest player to make his debut for a new club in the NRL era.
"My age is just a number for me," the veteran told NRL.com. "Yes, I'm getting old but I'm still enjoying it."
Heighington began his career in 2003 with the Wests Tigers before moving to Cronulla 10 years later. He might have played more than 300 first-grade games, but admits to still getting apprehensive before kick-off.
"I always get nervous before games even though I've been around for a while."
The opening game of the new season see's St George Illawarra host Brisbane live on Sky Sports on Thursday.
The biggest talking point of the opener is Ben Hunt. The Dragons' marquee purchase faces a tough test first up when he takes on his former team, a side he has played in for nine years.
"I've had a couple of thoughts about it and I've been asked about it a lot, but I don't really know how to feel about it yet," Hunt said.
"It's going to be a pretty strange feeling seeing 17 blokes across there that I've played with for a long time. It's going to be pretty exciting."
The new number seven will partner England international Gareth Widdop in the halves. Despite the pair having only had two months preparation due to World Cup commitments, Hunt still paid homage to his new teammate.
"(Widdop's) everything I've expected," Hunt added. "He's a world-class talent and you see him what he does during the game and then you come down to train with him and he's just doing freakish stuff all the time.
"He's such a great player and I'm really looking forward to playing with him."
Melbourne begin their defence of the NRL premiership without Billy Slater. The Storm take on the Bulldogs in Perth in round one and Slater will be forced to watch from the sidelines after injuring his troublesome shoulder in the World Club Challenge last month.
Slater, who was set to play in his 300th game in the NRL, is still feeling discomfort in his shoulder, despite a scan showing no structural damage.
"While I was very close to playing this weekend, I wanted to ensure I was ready and prepared to step onto the field for an NRL match and for what is a long and rigorous season, taking this precaution is the best course of action," Slater said.
He is expected to return for Melbourne's round two match with the Wests Tigers.