‘I've been really impressed’: Thurston lauds Wighton as Orange product prepares for massive year

EMERGING LEADER: Orange product Jack Wighton is primed and ready to explode in 2018, and have a massive season with Canberra. Photo: ROHAN THOMPSON
EMERGING LEADER: Orange product Jack Wighton is primed and ready to explode in 2018, and have a massive season with Canberra. Photo: ROHAN THOMPSON

There's something different about Orange’s Jack Wighton leading into the 2018 NRL season.

It feels like he's grown. Not physically. He's already an imposing figure - tall, strong, athletic - but in his demeanour.

When you talk to the Canberra Raiders fullback he seems more self-assured, more comfortable in his NRL skin.

It's not hard to see why he's considered an emerging leader, with the great Johnathan Thurston saying Wighton probably doesn't realise just how influential he can be.

The pair spent time together at the NRL's annual Indigenous camp as part of a week-long festival of their culture and football during the pre-season.

Nothing screams leadership more than Thurston - the North Queensland co-captain is one of the most revered figures in the modern game.

He sees Wighton as someone he'd willingly hand the baton over to in the Indigenous community.

"Yeah definitely. He's got the attributes of a really good leader. He's very influential in the group setting. He's certainly got the attributes to lead," Thurston said at Channel 9’s NRL launch.

"He's very proud of his heritage and his culture. He's obviously a great rugby league player as well. I've been really impressed with him every time our paths have crossed in the camps.

"He's very influential and probably doesn't realise how influential he can be."

Wighton's one of five members of the Indigenous senior players group alongside Thurston, Greg Inglis, Joel Thompson and the Gold Coast's Ash Taylor.

The 25-year-old found the camp a productive experience, where he got to immerse himself in his own culture.

He grew up listening to his elders and the stories they would tell - although his "two left feet" meant dancing was never really his thing.

"It's just good to reconnect. Every time we go into camp we get taught a little bit of culture, a little bit of dance," Wighton said.

"Some boys are never exposed to that type of stuff so it's always good to go back on that.

"We talked a little bit of culture, a bit of dance practice. Not just that, we had a few life lessons and talks, and also a bit of mental health stuff. It was a really productive camp."

Wighton has set himself for a big year on the field - not just with the Green Machine, but representative football is in his sights as well.

He's played 117 games and is coming into his seventh NRL season. While he's played for the Indigenous All Stars and represented NSW Country four times, he's yet to taste the State of Origin arena.

But it's something he's striving for.

"I'm just going to try and have a massive season. I've been around a little while now and I've always been in the mix, but I'm going to try and put myself out there this year, hopefully have a real good one," he said.

"I'd love to [play Origin]. It's definitely one of my goals on the list so I'm going to strive hard for that."

And he has the backing of one of the Origin all-time greats to get there.

Thurston's played 38 Tests for Australia and made 37 appearances for Queensland during his 16-year career.

While he's stepped aside from the Origin arena as a player, Thurston will still be involved with the Maroons in some capacity.

He felt Wighton was on the brink of starting his own journey for the NSW Blues.

"He's been on the cusp of playing Origin for a couple of years," Thurston said.

"He's a damaging ball runner when he brings the ball back, he's great under the high ball, he's got really good skills, good tempo and temperament when he's coming to the line with the ball in his hands.

"He's been on the cusp for a couple of years, no doubt he's pushing for that spot."

Wighton and his Raiders start their season on Sunday against the Gold Coast Titans, at CBUS Super Stadium from 6.30pm.

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