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Former champions face off against the odds
A year on from the heartbreak of going down to Cronulla in the Grand Final, Melbourne have the chance to achieve a piece of history in their pursuit of redemption. Defying critics who decried the end of the Storm's dynasty following their limp exit against Canterbury three years ago, Craig Bellamy has rejuvenated his roster to the extent that 15 years into his tenure, the 2017 squad may well be the best ever assembled in the NRL era. Going down on just four occasions this season, the precedent set by the Victorian club highlights the culture of excellence instilled in the Melbourne players to refuse to lose under any circumstance. Keeping faith with the same 17 players that accounted for Parramatta and Brisbane throughout the finals, the efforts of Young Tounamaipea, Ryley Jacks, Robbie Rochow and Joe Stimson throughout the year have been acknowledged by inclusion in the extended squad for Sunday's fixture. Retaining 11 of the players from last year's 14-12 loss to the Sharks, Sunday marks the final appearance for a number of players including Jordan McLean, Tohu Harris, Slade Griffin and Cooper Cronk, all of whom will be eager to mark the conclusion of their time at the Storm with the ultimate prize.
With eight minutes remaining in the penultimate regular season match of 2017, the North Queensland Cowboys were mere moments away from being consigned to the disappointment of missing out on a place in the finals. Four weeks later, the Cowboys have defied the odds to contest the unlikeliest of premiership deciders off the back of three inspired performances over the Sharks, Eels and Roosters. Losing their most influential player midway through the season, the absence of Johnathan Thurston was expected to bring about the end of their chances, yet in spite of 12 years of evidence to the contrary, the Cowboys have proven they are more than a one man team. Naming 12 of the players who featured in the ecstasy of the club's maiden premiership triumph two years ago, coach Paul Green has resisted the temptation to bring in a further member of the side that downed Brisbane 17-16 by stating that co-captain Matt Scott will only take part in his first match since Round 2 in the event of a pre-game injury. Additionally, Javid Bowen and Braden Uele have been included on an extended bench, alongside Ray Thompson who has been recognised for his contributions at the Cowboys over the past decade in his final appearance for the club before retirement. Likely to thrive off the dismissals of naysayers as they have done all throughout September, the Cowboys have shown their self-belief and game plan is good enough to outlast 14 other sides this season, but against the best team in the league, they'll need to produce the game of their lives.
2017 | Round 22 2017 - Cowboys 8 Storm 26 (1300SMILES) || Round 15 2017 - Storm 23 Cowboys 22 (AAMI)
Finals | Second Qualifying Final, 2016 - Storm 16 Cowboys 10 (AAMI)
While a decision on his future beyond 2017 is yet to be confirmed, in all likelihood Sunday will mark the final time Cooper Cronk takes the field in the NRL. At 33 years of age and with in excess of 300 first grade matches to his name, the Queensland and Australian halfback has been among the most influential players of his generation with a learned ability to seize the moment when it matters most. Surpassing Anthony Minichiello's NRL Grand Final appearances record by taking part in his seventh decider, the former Clive Churchill medalist is fully aware of what is required to succeed on the first Sunday in October and will relish the opportunity to prove that while Michael Morgan is the future of playmakers, he still has what it takes to get the job done. Having achieved all there is after 14 seasons in first grade, the opportunity to finish his career with a premiership should ensure Cronk stands up for the last time to direct the Storm to victory.
Facing the prospect of seeing out 2017 in reserve grade at Penrith, mid-season transfer Te Maire Martin stands within reach of a remarkable piece of history. Replicating the efforts of former Cowboys playmaker Brett Firman 12 years ago by featuring in a Grand Final after shifting clubs midway through the year, the New Zealand international produced a moment of individual magic in a performance largely overshadowed by the heroics of his halves partner against the Roosters. Touted as a future star of the game, Martin will be eager to seize the opportunity afforded so early in his first grade career and provide an attacking spark to trouble the structures that have made the Storm near impenetrable at times this season. At his best when taking on the line, the North Queensland pivot should have few opportunities on Sunday night, but when given a chance look for Martin to strike and make his presence felt.
Whether it is acknowledged or refuted by league supporters and the general public alike, sport is political. All elements of culture are reflections of the political attitudes of the day and the actions taken by the National Rugby League are no exception. For all the focus on the 34 players taking part on Sunday night, the moment that will endure long after the fulltime siren has sounded will be the pre-match performance by US rapper Macklemore. In the current Australian climate, the decision by the NRL to stand on the right side of history through a public display of embracing marriage equality during the performance of ‘Same Love' will demonstrate the inclusive principles rugby league envisions itself to uphold. While certain to evoke passionate responses from either side of the campaign, a public declaration on this scale may be dismissed as an opportunistic PR stunt. However, for rugby league supporters who aren't seen as equal in the eyes of the law, the moment will provide an impact far greater than any Taumalolo charge or Vunivalu try.
Having flexed their muscles to dominate Brisbane last Friday night, Melbourne is expected to complete the most legitimately successful season by a club in the NRL era with a premiership.
All year the Storm have been far and away the best team in the league, while ever since Johnathan Thurston was ruled out for the season the demise of the Cowboys has been predicted by everyone bar North Queensland. Having suffered the pain of losing the decider 12 months ago the Storm have awaited the chance to make amends, while the lack of expectation has seen the Cowboys rise to heights few thought possible. On the balance of evidence Melbourne should be too strong, but having made a habit out of unexpected, who's to say North Queensland can't complete the unlikeliest of premiership charges? For so long Melbourne have been the pinnacle of rugby league excellence and with the ‘Big Three' to go around for the final time, the class of the Storm should secure their place in the history books.
1. Billy Slater 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. William 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. Kenneath 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 17. Shaun Fensom 9. Jake Granville 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 8. John Asiata 14. Ben Hampton 15. Coen Hess 16. Corey Jensen