It’s the ultimate rugby league fairytale. The eighth-placed Cowboys have scratched and clawed their way past team after team and defied all odds along the way. Just months ago their season seemed as good as over when Johnathan Thurston was sidelined with a shoulder injury, yet here they stand as one of the final two teams in the competition. It’s the ultimate underdog story. On the other side of the field stands the seemingly unbeatable Melbourne Storm. Melbourne have dominated the competition all year, and with the extra motivation of Cooper Cronk’s farewell, it’s safe to say that the premiership is the Storm’s to lose. But if there’s one thing the past month has taught us, it’s that the North Queensland Cowboys should never be counted out.
Last Time Out
There are two ways that Cowboys coach Paul Green could look at the Storm’s grand final qualifier against the Brisbane Broncos last week. On a positive note, Melbourne showed that they actually aren’t perfect, with the Storm blowing guaranteed tries and showing signs of weakness in defence. On the other hand, the Storm blew the third-placed Broncos out of the water with a 30-0 smashing. The Storm were far from at their best yet still kept the Broncos scoreless for the first time since 2013. The Storm struggled to execute in the first half, making mistakes – such as Suliasi Vunivalu dropping the ball with a clear path to the tryline. They were only up 8-0 at halftime, but a good portion of the second half could find its way onto the highlight reel with Melbourne running riot. The combination of Felise Kaufusi and Billy Slater combined for two tries to send the Broncos home for Mad Monday.
In their third consecutive finals game, the Cowboys showed no signs of fatigue, and plenty of signs of the team spirit that’s made them admired by the entire competition. No one really gave North Queensland a chance of upsetting the second-placed Roosters, who were fresh off a week’s rest. Yet the Cowboys were absolutely inspirational once again, and with the destructive duo of Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo leading the way, they pushed past the Roosters to earn a grand final spot. Morgan filled the massive shoes of Jonathan Thurston better than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. His game management has been superb, and he even looked like JT when he calmly slotted a field goal under pressure to put the Cowboys’ lead beyond reach. Taumalolo was once again enormous, running for 256 metres and getting a quick play the ball on each and every run. Yet its plays like four Cowboys defenders picking up Ryan Matterson and driving him back into the ingoal that truly typifies the effort and determination that has got the Cowboys so far this season. They may be missing Thurston and Matt Scott, but they’ve got more than enough heart and ability to make up for it.
The most intriguing match up of the 2017 grand final will be the battle between the two halfbacks Michael Morgan and Cooper Cronk. So much is riding on the line for these two star players. Morgan is undoubtedly the form player of the competition since his meteoric rise during the finals series, and if he is able to lead the Cowboys to a premiership without JT, he will establish himself as one of the best halfbacks in the game. Cowboys fans have always been worried about the future without JT, yet here they have a 25-year-old game winner who could lead North Queensland to their second premiership, just two years after the first.
Morgan’s legacy would be set in stone if he can pull off a grand final win, but on the other side of the field is one of the greatest halfbacks of all time, who is looking to end his own legacy with a fairytale finish. Cooper Cronk has yet to confirm he will be retiring this season, but if he is able to top off his career at his beloved Storm with a premiership, it’s hard to see him playing on next year. The selfless halfback will do his best to avoid any attention in the lead up to the game, but there is no doubt that he and his team mates will be doing everything to send him out as a winner.
Cronk and Morgan are both fantastic at leading their team around the park. Morgan has laid on 20 try assists this season, while Cronk has 15. Morgan has also crossed for 11 tries compared to Cronk’s six, but it’s game management where the veteran has the slight upper hand over his younger rival. Morgan’s leadership has been incredible in the finals, and his kicking game and ability to control the match has perhaps been the most impressive aspect since he stood up in JT’s absence. Cooper Cronk will go down as one of the most composed halfbacks to ever grace a rugby league field, and the veteran will rely on his countless experience in grand finals and representative games to help lead his team to victory. Morgan is certainly the more in-form player right now, however Cronk may just have enough experience to school his opposition halfback.
There is so much to like about the way the Cowboys have been playing, and they have proven they thrive as underdogs after winning their past three finals games against favoured opposition. However the Storm are truly one of the most complete rugby league teams we have ever seen, and they have the advantage of being lead around by three future immortals. The Cowboys will throw everything they have at them, but it’s hard to see the Storm losing two grand finals in a row.
Storm by eight.
“He’s probably ahead of me at the moment. He’s playing elite, there’s no doubt about it. His fingerprints and influence on the game, along with a lot of other players, has driven North Queensland to the position they’re in. So simple answer — he probably is (the best halfback in the NRL),”- Cooper Cronk on Michael Morgan.
“We’ve certainly got expectations but they are what we expect from the inside, they are what are important to us. The players are encouraged not to worry about what is said outside but to get on with trying to satisfy our expectations as a team and we go from there,” Craig Bellamy on the expectation of the Storm.
“There are no such things as fairy tales in rugby league, only hard work and results. I’m just going about my business the best I know, with all the information I’ve got in front of me. Hopefully come 7:30 on Sunday night the team and I are ready to put our best performance together,” Cooper Cronk on a fairytale send off.
“He knows how to control a game of footy and we’re playing against a team this week, against Cooper Cronk who is probably the benchmark for controlling a game of footy, so we’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Gavin Cooper.
“The 17 guys that got us to the grand final will be the 17 guys that will play next weekend. They’re the guys that got us there so they deserve the chance to get the job done for us again,” Paul Green on including Matt Scott.
“I probably haven’t been generally as happy with my attacking game but I’ve been working on it and I’ll be looking to try and bring that attribute for the team. It’s something that’s probably one of the better parts of my game, is running, so I’ll have to work on that and try and take advantage of the opportunities that I do get,” Jake Granville on increasing his running game.
1.Billy Slater 2 Suliasi Vunivalu 3 Will Chambers 4 Curtis Scott 5 Josh Addo-Carr 6 Cameron Munster 7 Cooper Cronk 8 Jesse Bromwich 9 Cameron Smith 10 Jordan McLean 11 Felise Kaufusi 12 Tohu Harris 13 Dale Finucane 14 Kenny Bromwich 15 Tim Glasby 16 Nelson Asofa-Solomona 17 Slade Griffin
1.Lachlan Coote 2 Kyle Feldt 3 Justin O’Neill 4 Kane Linnett 5 Antonio Winterstein 6 Te Maire Martin 7 Michael Morgan 8 John Asiata 9 Jake Granville 10 Scott Bolton 11 Gavin Cooper 12 Ethan Lowe 13 Jason Taumalolo 14 Ben Hampton 15 Coen Hess 16 Corey Jensen 17 Shaun Fensom
North Queensland Cowboys vs Melbourne Storm, Sunday 1st October, 7:15pm (6:15pm Brisbane), ANZ Stadium Homebush.
Referees: Matt Cecchin and Gerard Sutton