Friday, September 29, 2017

Cowboys can do what history shows '09 Eels should have

EIGHT years after crestfallen Parramatta lost a grand final to the formidable Melbourne Storm, North Queensland have an opportunity to claim the legitimate title that only cheating could rob the Eels of.

The parallels between the Eels of 2009 and the Cowboys of 2017 are both near and far.

The Cowboys have burned their former Allianz stadium curse, winning twice at the venue in the 2017 NRL Finals. 

Both snuck into the finals in eighth position, but only one had a strong run home with a string of victories.

Both, were at one stage in the season listed as $151 to win the title.

Both have a group of players playing without fear or favour of their opposition, but only one was missing their two co-captains for most of the season.

One most definitely had an individual performance that single-handedly propelled them in the grand final, but both have a broad collection of no-nonsense players who have lifted to their potential.

Think Jeff Robson, Joel Reddy and Ben Smith for the Eels, and think Shaun Fensom, Scott Bolton and John Asiata for the Cowboys.

And with destructive capacity, both sides have a forward who can lift and inspire their team with game-changing runs. You’ll know of Jason Taumalolo, but will you have remembered the impact of Fui Fui Moi Moi.

Crucially, Taumalolo now knows he can have an impact similar to Moi Moi's.

Eight years is a long time though, so how has the constant in this equation – The Storm – changed?

Same coach, same captain, same halfback, same fullback. 

That’s some consistency in a first-grade football side given their commercial influences of the modern game.

On paper, the Storm side this time around is considerably weaker than in 2009. And it should be, given the ’09 side was close to a million dollars over the salary cap.

But it’s a side still with attacking potency and muscle in defence, albeit with a different crop of men.

The main difference, is the age of Melbourne’s big three. Do they possess eight more years of experience? Or do they have they eight more years of slowing down?

Cameron Smith’s second Dally M this week, Billy Slater’s fullback-of-the-year award and incredible comeback from two season-ending injuries this season, along with Cooper Cronk’s ability to guide Queensland to another Origin series’ victory probably suggest the former.

But it was there in Smith’s performance in game one of Origin, in the match against the Eels in the first week of the NRL Finals, and again in the win over Brisbane last week. The mistakes, slow starts, un-Melbourne like decisions in their play.

The Storm are most certainly beatable and the Cowboys must believe it. That’s how they should view the Storm’s big three; older, slower, weaker.

Melbourne no longer have a career-best Ryan Hoffman or arguably one of the game's best-ever centres in Greg Inglis.

But of the men who adorn the rest of the positions on the park is perhaps where the game will be won. Grand finals are a different ball-game. Nerves can get the better of the sharpest and calmest player.

Until last weekend, I didn’t even know who Melbourne’s centre Curtis Scott was. Perhaps na├»ve, but equally, who the hell is North Queensland’s John Asiata?  

Melbourne have 11 players backing up from their 2016 grandfinal loss to Cronulla. Quite a number looking to exact revenge and make up for the lost chance.

But just as similarly, North Queensland have 12 players in their line-up who played in their 2015 grand final win over Brisbane.

You have to wonder what the betting lines would be like if Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott were playing on Sunday. Surely, near-on-par.

But that’s the thing, without those two, there is absolutely no pressure on the Cowboys. They’re meant to be on holidays by now. Who cares how far they go? No one expected them to come this far.

Meant to be kicking back grabbing a sun tan, rather than a premiership winner's medal.

The pressure is on the Melbourne Storm, really. They lost in 2016 and have been the best all season as proven by their minor premiership.

Craig Bellamy will look to limit the impact of Taumalolo and Morgan, while Paul Green will hope to shut down the influence of Smith and Cronk.

The key players who can seriously influence this result are Melbourne’s wingers, Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr, and the Cowboys’ forwards Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe and off the bench – Cohen Hess.

Can the outside-flyers find the space to put points on the board for the Storm? Likewise, can the cutting runs of the Cowboys hole-runners nab the two or three defining tries usually seen on grand final day?

SECRET WEAPON: Cohen Hess has scored on 10 different occasions this season; in three of those he got a double.

Parramatta lost on the day in 2009, but history showed they were playing against an un-even spread of talent.

This time, for the Cowboys – and the Storm – the ledges are squared.

They might be missing the world’s best player, but at least North Queensland can know they’re not facing an unconquerable side.  

But they don’t fear anyone, anyway, right? They’re meant to be on holidays.

Prediction: Cowboys to have two titles to their name by Monday to go with their new stadium being built next season that Johnathan Thurston called for after winning their first in 2015.