Following two semi-final wins, the North Queensland Cowboys are now just one win away from the NRL grand final.
It?s hard to believe that the Cowboys were wooden spooners in 2000. Since they joined the League in 1995, they have always finished outside of semi-final contention - but all that changed this year.
Under the guidance of coach Graham Murray, the North Queenlanders have come from being the competition?s easy-beats to a team to be reckoned with.
Following the euphoria and excitement of defeating the Bulldogs and Broncos, the Cowboys now face their biggest test this Sunday, when they take on minor premiers and redhot favourites, the Sydney Roosters.
With temperatures forecast to reach 27C, Roosters? coach Ricky Stuart has arranged training sessions in the heat of the day. He admits that the North Queenslanders will be more accustomed to playing in heat and humidity. But the Roosters boast a star-studded line-up. Apart from lock Luke Ricketson, who is recovering from a virus, the Roosters will have a full strength team and it?s hard to see them being denied a grand final berth.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys may have a few injury clouds of their own. Forwards Glenn Morrison (ankle), Paul Rauhihi (calf) and centre Josh Hannay (hip) are all reportedly confident of passing fitness tests.
But Graham Murray may have the advantage of insight over his counterpart, having previously coached the Roosters.
English front rower Adrian Morley, former Dragon and second rower Craig Fitzgibbon, forwards Michael Crocker and Chris Flannery, fullback Anthony Minichiello and hooker Craig Wing were all signed at the club when Murray was at the helm in 2000-02.
The Cowboys have also accustomed themselves to playing sudden-death football while the Roosters, coming off a week?s rest, will have to be wary of complacency.
Nevertheless, the Roosters great advantage is that they have talent and experience across the park. No question about it. Playing his last season, skipper Brad Fittler is an inspiration to his team mates. As always, the veteran five eighth will direct play both sides of the ruck while half back Brett Finch?s influence makes it even harder to shut down the Roosters attack.
Lurking behind the halves will be the likes of Minichiello, Wing, Ryan Cross, and Chris Walker. The Cowboys? defence will, more often not, find the going relentless. Excellent cover defenders, the Cowboys? centre partners of Hannay and Paul Bowman will have their work cut.
To counter this, the Cowboys have David Myles and Nathan Fien in the halves, both in rare form. Nippy fullback Matt Bowen has been the star of the finals so far. Constantly running at the bigger men and stepping, Bowen invariably finds room just wide of the ruck. If the conditions are heat up, you can expect more of the same as the defending forwards struggle to adjust to Bowen?s fancy footwork.
If the Cowboys are to win this, they?ll have to hammer away at the Roosters with quick play-the-balls and dummy half running. But don?t be surprised if the Roosters dominate the ruck and slow down play. You can also expect long range kicking as both sides will feel heat in more ways than one.
The forward exchanges will be a highlight with Morley, Fitzgibbion and Ricketson sure to tackle the house down. They?ll be confronted by a rampaging Rauhihi, Luke O'Donnell and Shane Tronc. All of whom will be determined not to be intimidated by their more fancied rivals.
The Roosters are tipped to win and deserve to be short odd favourites. But don?t be surprised if this turns out to be a classic encounter with players digging deep late in the match, and earning their right to be there on grand final day.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS v NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS Telstra Stadium, Sunday 26 September at 3.30pm. ROOSTERS: Anthony Minichiello, Shannon Hegarty, Ryan Cross, Justin Hodges, Chris Walker, Brad Fittler (c), Brett Finch, Jason Cayless, Craig Wing, Adrian Morley, Michael Crocker, Craig Fitzgibbon, Luke Ricketson. Interchange: Chad Robinson, Chris Flannery, Ned Catic, Anthony Tupou, Stuart Webb (one to be omitted). COWBOYS: Matt Bowen, Ty Williams, Josh Hannay, Paul Bowman, Matt Sing, David Myles, Nathan Fien, Paul Rauhihi, Aaron Payne, Shane Tronc, Luke O'Donnell, Steve Southern, Travis Norton (c). Interchange: Rod Jensen, Glenn Morrison, Leigh McWilliams, Mitchell Sargent, Kevin Campion, David Faiumu (two to be omitted).
Referee: Paul Simpkins.
FORM GUIDE Roosters: Played: 25, Won 20, Lost 5 (Points for: 748, Points against: 380) Cowboys: Played: 26, Won 14, Drawn 1, Lost 11 (Points for: 566, Points against: 536) Head to head: Played 15, Roosters 14, North Queensland 1 Previous clashes in 2004: Roosters 32 d North Queensland 22 at Gosford (round 17)
Centrebet (25 Sept) Roosters $1.25; Cowboys $4.00Like