One side has countless superstars, topped the NRL ladder for the majority of the season and has one – if not two – greats of the game potentially pulling on their iconic jersey for the last time. The other has been decimated through injury for most of the season, seemingly crippling any premiership hopes along the way, not to mention only sneaking in to the finals thanks to a monumental choke job by one of their rivals. Yet here they are.
Both sides are fantastic stories are opposite ends of the pole, yet either side’s win will be fairy-tale for one reason or another.
So without further adieu, let’s break this game down.
The halves combination has dominated media circles already this week and rightly so. At the end of the day, they’re four of the most influential players on any football field. This weekend, however, has more emphasis on them with Cooper Cronk’s last game for Melbourne creating waves of emotion down south while up north, Michael Morgan has been dubbed the best halfback in the game by several high profile personalities following a string of inspirational performances, helping carry the Cowboys to the pointy end of the season.
Cronk laughed when asked if Morgan was better than he is at the minute before going on to agree with the reporter, going to show the amount of respect that Cronk has for his Queensland teammate.
Morgan took the reins of the Cowboys side when Jonathon Thurston went down halfway through the season and a transition in his game from a ball-running half to a more rounded player has changed the complexion of a Cowboys side in freefall down the ladder towards the end of the home and away season.
His early 40/20 last week set the tone for his side, allowing them to play the game on their terms when push came to shove when the game was on the line.
His battle this week with Cameron Munster will be a fascinating one. If anything, Munster plays a lot like how Morgan used to play, running the ball to the line before utilizing his strong stiff-arm fend or skipping to the outside and using the men available on the outside.
While a lot of the focus is on the pair’s offensive skillset, both are very strong defensively in what adds another dimension to this mouth-watering duel, not to mention that their performances could determine which of the pair is picked is picked in the number 6 jersey for Australia in the upcoming World Cup.
On the other side of the field, Te Maire Martin has warmed into his role into the side since joining earlier this season and scored a spectacular solo try last weekend to prove that he is ready for the big stage this Sunday night. Coming up against Cooper Cronk will prove no easy task however as he will be keen to atone for last year’s performance in the decider with a prolific display in his final Storm outing.
Melbourne’s vast array of playmakers has meant Cronk hasn’t been required to dominate games like he has done in the past and it’s almost been his defensive plays that have stood out in recent times. North Queensland’s tactics around Cronk will be a major talking point ahead of the game, with Cronulla’s blueprint from last year’s grand final sure to get a mention at one point or another.
Onto the forward pack and you simply cannot start this conversation without Jason Taumalolo. What he has done in 2017 has been simply extraordinary and stopping him is a near impossible task.
Melbourne’s forwards coach Jason Ryles acknowledged that and said it was more about limiting him than anything else.
“One thing you don’t call him out – you don’t poke the bear, that’s just silly,” Ryles said.
“Get in front of him and get as many people in the tackle as you can. Obviously it’s something we’ll speak about during the week, watch some footage of him, and do our best to limit the impact as much as we can.”
Taumalolo averaged just over 200m per game in home and away season and has taken his game to another level (if that were possible) in the finals series.
Week 1 vs Cronulla: 71 minutes (with extra time), 259 metres , 37 tackles
Week 2 vs Parramatta: 58 minutes, 242 metres, 35 tackles
Week 3 vs Sydney: 64 minutes, 256 metres, 26 tackles
The stats are mind-boggling.
Ahead of the grand final, Taumalolo needs just 54 metres gained to become the first forward in the competition’s history to crack 5000 metres for a season.
Along with Ethan Lowe and Scott Bolton, the Cowboys possess a big and imposing pack that runs straight lines which is somewhat contrary to those on the opposite side of the field.
While Jesse Bromwich and Jordan McLean cut a mean figure, their lean build and footwork at the line allow them to be more mobile than the average big man. Nelson Asofa-Solomona off the bench is similar, while second rowers Felise Kaufusi and Tohu Harris speed and ability to get to the outside make them a dangerous combination with their halves.
Kaufusi has arguably been Melbourne’s best player in 2017 and while he may not get all the plaudits that some of his high-profile teammates receive, there’s no doubting that internally, he is well appreciated. He has produced more offloads than any other forward in the side while also scoring eight tries in a stellar campaign.
Not to be forgotten, North Queensland’s John Asiata will muster all of his courage to play in the decider despite suffering from a broken hand.
Finally, the back five. The speed, athleticism and consistency of both sides in this area impress as a group more often than most sides. Billy Slater is arguably in career best form while young wingers Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu are polarising players with the ability to win a game on their own accord with just a handful of touches.
All-representative player Will Chambers paints the perfect picture of a Storm player. Put in the work and the rewards will come and has possibly been Melbourne’s most consistent player this season. Young gun Curtis Scott arrived on the scene and hasn’t missed a beat including laying on a terrific try assist last week to ‘The Fox’ to score the game’s first four-pointer. They’re a team within a team as just as impressive.
Former Storm player Justin O’Neill feared his season was over after suffering an elbow injury but upon his return, he hasn’t missed a beat, solidifying their attack and defence in the process. Kyle Feldt is just as impressive as any winger on his day while Antonio Winterstein continues to push through the pain barrier to produce time after time.
Kane Linnett’s defence is unquestionable while Lachlan Coote isn’t the most flashy or glamorous fullback in the game but he gets the job done.
The Storm prefer to go to the right edge of Vunivalu and Chambers more often than not, having produced 45 tries in that corner this season while the Cowboys prefer the left side of their attack, having scored 17 more tries on their left edge than their right.
If that trend continues, that side of the park could be in for a busy night.
At $3.80, the Cowboys aren’t given any real chance to beat the Storm on Sunday night, much like they weren’t given any chance in the three weeks prior either. In their fourth consecutive trip to Sydney, it’ll almost feel like their second home of late.
Recent history between the two sides counts for nothing, with the Storm winning an Origin-hit clash along with a severely injury-hit Cowboys side in their two match ups this season.
This game should be an absolute belter. They’re clinical, the Storm, but their opponents are playing without any fear and should they overcome the enormity of the grand final stage, anything is possible.
We’ll back the Storm, because how can you not, but in a low-scoring and nervy affair.
Let’s say Storm 16-10 as Cooper Cronk drives off into the Sydney wilderness.
|Te Maire Martin||6|