The Melbourne Storm destroyed Brisbane in a totally one-sided contest on Saturday to progress to a second consecutive NRL Grand Final.
The nature of their 30-0 victory has made them heavy favourites to win the trophy and make up for the disappointment of last season’s heart-breaking defeat.
Yet they face a ferocious challenge from North Queensland Cowboys, the plucky underdogs that continue to astound pundits and fans alike with their fairy-tale run of results.
The Cowboys appeal to the romantics, yet logic would suggest the top-ranked Storm will win it comfortably given the recent head-to-heads.
However, Paul Green’s men have been defying logic for weeks now and their spirit and self-belief will stand them in good stead as they bid to pull off one more shock win.
So far the Cowboys have already delivered the three biggest surprises of the season. They were underdogs in their qualifying final against the Sharks but sneaked a 15-14 victory, and they were not given much hope of beating the Eels in the semis. So fans were left scratching their heads when the Cowboys won 24-16, and were even more baffled by their huge upset in the preliminary final against the Roosters.
They were the eighth placed team, the last placed team to qualify, and going up against the second placed team, and the Cowboys were riddled with injuries to the likes of Jonathan Thurston, but the heart and desire they showed saw them emerge triumphant. Once again a late rally from Kyle Feldt got them over the line, and the brilliance of Michael Morgan was pivotal. It is the stuff of dreams for Cowboys fans, even more so when you remember that they would not even be here had the Dragons held on against the Bulldogs in round 26.
Now they are on the brink of a second Premiership, but the odds are hugely stacked against them. In fact, this final pits the team with the shortest odds in NRL history against a team that was 100/1 to win it just three weeks ago.
A glance at the latest odds on NRL shows that the bookmakers are now offering around $1.27 on the Storm and $4.00 on the Cowboys. Despite the evidence being clearly in the Storm’s favour, you can expect a flurry of bets going on the Cowboys because everybody loves a fairy-tale.
But the Storm will be quietly confident going into this final. After all, pundits have long predicted they would meet the Broncos in the Grand Final, but instead the two teams played in the preliminary final and Melbourne absolutely demolished their rivals. It finished 30-0 and on paper it looks about as resounding a victory as you will ever see at such a late stage in the season.
But the minor premiers were not exactly at their free-flowing best and it was a scrappy encounter, with three of Melbourne’s four tries coming in the final 20 minutes. Regardless of that, they got the job done in emphatic style and have been head and shoulders above all their peers throughout the season.
Their path to the Grand Final has been easy and dominant, and their dominance over the Cowboys in recent years is absolute. The purple army secured a thumping 26-8 win the last time these two teams met, and that was in Townsville.
The previous encounter was a thriller as the Cowboys took Melbourne to extra-time, only to fall to a golden point from Brodie Croft, and the Cowboys will take heart from that. However, the Storm have beaten the Cowboys on each of the last seven times they have met, and most of them have been comfortable victories.
Melbourne have not lost a game in nine weeks and have an outrageously talented squad, led by the Big Three of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and the soon to depart Cooper Cronk. Victory in the Grand Final would be a fairy-tale for Cronk, so there is plenty riding on the outcome of the game for both teams and an abundance of engaging stories to be told. The Storm should dominate the game and nobody would be surprised if they won, but it is not a foregone conclusion.
After the preliminary final, Roosters coach Trent Robinson declared that Morgan is the best player in the world right now, and that is hard to dispute. His pass for Kane Linnett to score against the Roosters was absolutely exquisite, and he was almost faultless throughout. With him in the team, the Cowboys have a chance.
Not only do they have heart and self-belief, they also have great momentum and that is crucial at this time of year.
They also have nothing to lose, and that makes them dangerous, so Melbourne will have to be at the top of their game if they are to win what promises to be an electrifying Grand Final.