The Grand Final is just a few sleeps away as Minor Premiers Melbourne Storm come up against the giant-killing, fairytale-chasing North Queensland Cowboys on the last day of the 2017 season. The 2015 Premiers will look to continue their dream run and deny this season’s Minor Premiers the ultimate prize for a second consecutive season. The Storm have used last year’s Grand Final disappointment to produce arguably the most dominant season in recent memory but can the Cowboys come from eighth position to steal the 2017 Premiership?
The last team to make the Grand Final from eighth place was the Jarryd Hayne inspired Parramatta Eels in 2009, who curiously also came up against Melbourne but were on the wrong end of a 23-16 scoreline. The Cowboys will look to once again etch their names in the history books and become the first team to ever come from the bottom of the eight to lift the trophy. Since the inception of the NRL, there is yet to be a Premier come from outside the top four but the manner in which the Cowboys have defied all odds to reach this point will have most rugby league fans outside of Victoria willing them onto the most unlikely of victories.
2017 Rd 15 Melbourne Storm 26 def. North Queensland Cowboys 8 at 1300SMILES Stadium
2017 Rd 15 Melbourne Storm 23 def. North Queensland Cowboys 22 at AAMI Park
2016 Qualifying final Melbourne storm 16 def. North Queensland Cowboys 10 at AAMI Park.
2016 Rd 21 Melbourne Storm 16 def. North Queensland Cowboys 8 at 1300SMILES Stadium
2016 Rd 10 Melbourne Storm 15 def. North Queensland Cowboys 14 at Suncorp Stadium
Most players and coaches will tell you that previous clashes mean little and have no bearing on the upcoming match-up but the Storm will surely draw confidence from their recent head-to-head record. As you can see, Melbourne have been dominant in recent meetings between the two sides, winning the last five in a row.
That run includes their most recent finals encounter, with the Cowboys’ last victory against the Storm coming in the 2015 preliminary final which lead to their maiden Premiership. Jonathan Thurston was the hero in that year but they will now be pinning their hopes on new saviour Michael Morgan.
|Billy Slater||1||1||Lachlan Coote|
|Suliasi Vunivalu||2||2||Kyle Feldt|
|Will Chambers||3||3||Justin O’Neill|
|Curtis Scott||4||4||Kane Linnett|
|Josh Addo-Carr||5||5||Antonio Winterstein|
|Cameron Munster||6||6||Te Maire Martin|
|Cooper Cronk||7||7||Michael Morgan|
|Jesse Bromwich||8||8||John Asiata|
|Cameron Smith||9||9||Jake Granville|
|Jordan McLean||10||10||Scott Bolton|
|Felise Kaufusi||11||11||Gavin Cooper|
|Tohu Harris||12||12||Ethan Lowe|
|Dale Finucane||13||13||Jason Taumalolo|
|Kenny Bromwich||14||14||Ben Hampton|
|Tim Glasby||15||15||Coen Hess|
|Nelson Asofa-Solomona||16||16||Corey Jensen|
|Slade Griffin||17||17||Shaun Fensom|
|Ryley Jacks||18||18||Ray Thompson|
|Robbie Rochow||19||19||Javid Bowen|
|Joe Stimson||20||20||Brandon Uele|
|Young Tonumaipea||21||21||Matthew Scott|
Both clubs have named the same 17 who played in last week’s preliminary finals with Matt Scott again amongst the reserves. There will be many questions asked throughout the week about whether he will make his way into the final 17 but, despite his experience and pedigree, it’s hard to imagine a player returning from a ruptured ACL to play just his third game of the season in the Grand Final. Paul Green would be taking a huge gamble and risk interrupting the rotation of his forward pack with a player who will be far from match fit. Instead, expect to see Shaun Fensom start in the middle, pushing John Asiata back to the bench.
The facts that matter
Just when you thought they couldn’t get any more impressive, Melbourne came out last week and wiped the floor with the Brisbane Broncos, handing them a 30-0 romping. The match was fairly even for the first hour but the Storm demonstrated their clinical edge to put on a heavy score line.
The intensity and aggression in their play pushes the opposition to their limits while they didn’t make a handling error in the opening 20 minutes last week. Issues have arisen in the following 20 minutes leading up to the half time break in both of their finals appearances this season.
Errors and penalties allowed the Eels back in to the game in week one, resulting in a half time deficit for the Storm, while they produced a similar lapse in discipline last week despite Brisbane being unable to capitalise. Ultimately, they came out firing in the second half on both occasions but Craig Bellamy will want an 80 minute display.
Luckily for him, he can call on the likes of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, who have a wealth of Grand Final experience and will provide the necessary words of wisdom throughout. Their cool heads may well prove the difference and with Cronk departing the Storm, and possibly retiring, after this game, there’ll be added motivation to send their half-back maestro out a winner.
North Queensland Cowboys
They lost their hulking front row enforcer in round two, then arguably the game’s best player after Origin two and the rest of the squad was ravaged by injury throughout the season. The Cowboys’ loss in round 26 was the fifth in their previous six games and they would’ve been gearing up for Mad Monday celebrations before the Bulldogs did them an almighty favour to gift them a berth in the finals series. If ever there was a team to inspire the rugby league masses, it’s the men from North Queensland as they went on to knock off last year’s Premiers, then the much-fancied Eels before saving their best performance of the season for the Sydney Roosters to earn a Grand Final spot.
Take nothing away from the superhuman efforts of Jason Taumalolo, they have been led by a man in career best form. Morgan has hoisted the team on his shoulders and carried them to within one more win of what would be the most unlikely Grand Final glory. How could anybody replace or replicate the sort of performances we’ve been so accustomed to seeing from JT?
It seemed impossible but Morgan has been absolutely outstanding. He grabbed a try assist and kicked the winning field goal against the Sharks before adding another assist and a match-sealing try against the Eels. He led his side around the park beautifully against the Roosters, adding another try assist to his tally. He rescued his side back in the 2015 Grand Final by setting up Kyle Feldt’s 80th-minute equaliser and will need to be even more influential in this one if the Cowboys are to be crowned Premiers again.
Green has created a deep seeded winning mentality within this side and will look to channel the confidence gained from that maiden Premiership victory to pull off their biggest upset yet.
With the relentless pace that Melbourne will inevitably push throughout the game, the defensive work of both sets of back rowers will be key to keeping their respective lines intact while they’ll also need to provide their own attacking attributes when points are required.
But ultimately this game will go to the side who can control the tempo, especially with an effective variety of kicking. Morgan has quickly adapted his game to become a dominant number seven but he won’t get the same support as Cronk will from the likes of Smith and Munster. The Storm’s big guns will let their composure shine and lead their side to another NRL title. Melbourne by 8.
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