Will the Storm or the Cowboys get their fairytale finish?
Over the past few of years, the NRL has been very good at dealing in the business of fairytales.
In 2014, the South Sydney Rabbitohs broke a 43-year premiership drought with a 30-6 win over the Canterbury Bulldogs in the grand final.
In 2015, the North Queensland Cowboys won their first premiership in one of the greatest grand finals in rugby league history. An entire stadium held its breath as Johnathan Thurston had the opportunity to win the game in regular time with a sideline conversion, which hit the post.
The stadium then erupted when Thurston kicked a golden-point field goal for to steal victory from the Brisbane Broncos 17-16.
And who can forget last year, when Paul Gallen was finally able to tell residents of the Shire to “turn your porch lights off, because we’re coming home with a trophy”. After 50 years, the longest drought in the NRL was broken when the Cronulla Sharks defeated Melbourne 14-12 to bring home their maiden premiership.
On Sunday, a new premier will be crowned, but which fairytale will prevail?
With victories over the Parramatta Eels and the Brisbane Broncos during the finals, the Storm now find themselves in their seventh grand final and second in a row.
They have been the 2017 benchmark, finishing first in both attack and defence, claiming the minor premiership to take home their sixth JJ Giltinan Shield in Craig Bellamy’s 15 years as coach.
On the way, Cameron Smith broke Darren Lockyer’s record of the most ever NRL appearances when he played his 356th match a couple of weeks ago. He also became the first NRL player to kick 1000 goals.
The last time a team was so dominant in the regular season was the 2001 Parramatta Eels.
Melbourne may look like an unlikely fairytale, but this will be the last time that Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Smith play together.
Earlier this year, Cronk announced that he was moving to Sydney to be with his fiancé Tara Rushton, signalling the end of an era for this champion team.
Say what you will about them, but this decade we have had the opportunity to watch three all-time greats play together, and this Sunday that will happen for the last time in club football.
This will also be of great significance to Slater, who missed last year’s grand final due to a long-term injury.
If the Storm do what everyone is predicting, it will be the send-off that Cronk deserves, a well-deserved reward for Slater who not only returned from long-term injury but returned better than ever, and a wonderful end to a historic season for Smith.
It will also be a reflection of the hard work done by plenty of others, including Cameron Munster, Felise Kaufusi, Suliasi Vunivalu, Will Chambers, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate the way this team plays together is not a fan of rugby league, because they are truly exceptional.
But Melbourne are going to have to fight for their fairytale, because North Queensland are standing in their way and after the last three weeks, you would be a fool to write them off.
The Cowboys’ season is the stuff that Disney movies are made of.
For them to be just 80 minutes away from their second premiership is incredible to many fans, who expected them to be bundled out of the finals come Week 1 (me included).
What I have learnt over this finals series though is that Paul Green’s side aren’t just a fairytale – they are a damn good football team.
With wins over Cronulla, Parramatta and the Sydney Roosters, North Queensland have earned their place in the grand final, despite their huge injury woes.
But forget the injuries, let’s focus on what has been happening on the field.
Over the last ten weeks, Michael Morgan has been given the opportunity to demonstrate what a talented football player he is, transforming into the team’s key playmaker and most important leader.
His kicking and passing game on Saturday night was stunning. It took just six minutes for Morgan to slot the 40-20 that set the tone for the rest of the game. Other moments of brilliants included the pass to put Kane Linnett over, another pass to Linnett moments later, who then passed to Kyle Feldt to score right in the corner, and Morgan’s field goal late in the second half to put the victory beyond doubt.
But it’s not just Morgan. I knew if the game was close on Saturday night before Jason Taumololo came on late in the second half, the Cowboys would win. He has been immense and continues to make metres up the middle without fuss or complaint.
Feldt is one of the best finishers in the game. Ethan Lowe has been outstanding, particularly with the boot, and John Asiata continues to prove that he can be a play-maker if need be.
Green and his team have such a strong sense of belief, desire and commitment to each other. It is the sort of story that rugby league loves because it’s based on the values that fans hold dearest.
North Queensland go into this weekend with no one expecting them to win. While they may be the underdogs, they carry the hope of plenty of Sydney fans and the entire state of Queensland on their shoulders.
And while the Storm may have been the best all season, I believe in fairytales, so I’m predicting that the Cowboys (and Shaun Fensom) are going to finish with theirs.
By Mary Konstantopoulos
Founder of Ladies Who League
This story was first written for The Roar.