Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys
ANZ Stadium, Homebush
7.15pm (local time), Sunday, October 1
This is it. The big one. The reason the players play. The reason we – the masses, the fanatics, the devotees – spend so many hours devoted to the sport we love.
The first Sunday in October, every year, a new chapter is written into history and fairy tales become reality.
And, one way or another, that's what we'll get this Sunday night: a fairy tale. Will it be the Storm, and their 'Big Three'? Will Cooper Cronk finish his decorated Melbourne (and, in all likelihood, rugby league) career with a second premiership? Will his close mate Billy Slater join him in hanging up the boots?
If so, it will be alongside their close mate and the game's best player and sure-fire Dally M winner Cameron Smith. He of the 1000 goals and the most ever games, who makes a million tackles a week and leads his team to win after win despite looking more an accountant than a footy player, and still somehow makes the grandest and humblest captain's speeches at full-time, win or lose, while never seeming the slightest bit out of breath.
And the rest, the journeymen and the up-and-comers and the bona-fide stars who may never had been stars had they not ended up at Craig Bellamy's doorstep on the greatest production line for players in the NRL. Josh Addo-Carr, The Fox, the fast kid from western Sydney who's already been quietly placed in the 'too-hard' basket by two Sydney clubs and now, in one short season at Melbourne is close to the best winger in the NRL. His fellow wing terror Suli Vunivalu, a no-name at the start of last year who has now scored more tries in his first two seasons than any player before him.
Departing duo Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean, given their starts at the Storm, one a Test player and the other every chance of becoming one, who like Cronk also hoping to finish their careers in purple with a title. Knights-bound hooker Slade Griffin too is looking for a dream finish at the club.
And their opponents, the Cowboys. The team that wasn't supposed to get this far. The team that, had luck been unkind at the back end of a luckless season, could have slipped to ninth in the final round of the regular season. The team that lost the game's best half and the game's best prop, lost five of their last six season games and seemingly lost their lustre and their chance to threaten for the title.
Someone forgot to tell Paul Green and his men though. They just kept turning up. Kept fighting. Refused to lie down, despite having every excuse to. Refused to listen to predictions, to naysayers. With no Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan has risen to new heights. Played the best season of his career. Somehow, last year's co-Dally M winner Jason Taumalolo has gotten even better. With no Matt Scott, he too has hit unfathomable heights.
They're not quite as flashy as their premiership-winning 2015 counterparts but they've got just as much spirit. Does it sound unkind to call them a team of unfashionable tryers, or is it high praise? Whether it's Ethan Lowe chasing Eels fullback Will Smith 100 metres to save two points then curling in crucial sideline conversions against the Roosters, or Scott Bolton rolling the sleeves up week after week then crashing over for a late try in a preliminary final, or stand-in skipper Gavin Cooper – the self-described "Steven Bradbury of captains" – helping fill the leadership gap with typically understated professionalism. A star team despite the absence of star players.
Josh Asiata ignoring the pain of a broken hand, Antonio Winterstein forging through a strained hammy, Shaun Fensom brushing off a dodgy knee, each of those and more proving the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A true team.
Whoever it will be come Sunday night, without question, a fairy tale will become reality.
Why the Storm can win: The best attacking and defensive team of the year by miles, the Storm's differential after 26 rounds of +297 was almost double that of second-best, Brisbane's +164. That same Broncos team was handily thumped 30-0 by Melbourne last week in a game where the Storm were well below their best (certainly in the first half). They have easily the most line breaks of any team; wingers Addo-Carr (25) and Vunivalu (20) are first and fifth, Slater (15) isn't far behind and Felise Kaufusi (13) has the most of any forward this year. The wing pair has 44 combined tries. Their four key playmakers are all in double figures for try assists this year. But for all of that arguably their most impressive efforts are without the ball, as they frustrate opponents into mistakes with flawless sliding defence. They break you down until you crack.
Why Cowboys can win: They weren't expected to win their past three games but they did so. Not only that, they got more impressive with each passing week. They have become the masters of percentage football. They dominate possession, cut out the errors and penalties, build pressure, wear you out and just never ever go away. They have forced more drop-outs (51) than any team this year. They have held the most ball, at a stunning 53.6 per cent, across the entire season. They've also received the most penalties (209).
And the form of Michael Morgan, who has truly come of age this year. Just two try assists in the first eight rounds, and 13 in 23 rounds (four of those in a single Round 10 romp over Canterbury). Since then: eight in six games, with at least one every week over the past six weeks. Crucial field goals under huge pressure. Game-breaking tries. His partner in crime, Jason Taumalolo, the best forward in the world. He's run more than 200 metres in four straight games, averaging 236 metres in the finals. It's ridiculous. Take out Boyd Cordner's 90 metres and Taumalolo outran the other five members of the Roosters starting pack on his own last week.
The history: Played 35; Storm 25; Cowboys 10. North Queensland have a horror record against the Storm and are currently on a five-game losing run against the minor premiers. The last win, in fact, came in their 2015 Grand Final qualifier en route to a maiden premiership. That was one of just three finals games played between the two clubs: North Queensland won a 2005 semi-final on their way to that year's decider, then came 2015, and Melbourne beat North Queensland in their 1 v 4 qualifying final last year. Interestingly, these two clubs have never faced each other at ANZ Stadium and only once ever in Sydney – the 2005 semi which was played at Allianz Stadium.
What are the odds: The Storm are hot favourites paying $.127 in the head to head betting while the Cowboys are at $3.50. See all the odds at www.tab.co.nz
Melbourne Storm | Billy Slater; Suliasi Vunivalu, William Chambers, Curtis Scott, Josh Addo-Carr; Cameron Munster, Cooper Cronk; Jesse Bromwich, Cameron Smith (c), Jordan McLean; Felise Kaufusi, Tohu Harris; Dale Finucane. Interchange: Kenneath Bromwich, Tim Glasby, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Slade Griffin, Ryley Jacks, Robbie Rochow, Joe Stimson, Young Tonumaipea.
North Queensland Cowboys | Lachlan Coote; Kyle Feldt, Justin O’Neill, Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein; Te Maire Martin, Michael Morgan; John Asiata, Jake Granville, Scott Bolton; Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe; Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: Ben Hampton, Coen Hess, Corey Jensen, Shaun Fensom, Ray Thompson, Javid Bowen, Braeden Uele, Matthew Scott.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Gerard Sutton; Touch judges: Nick Beashel and Chris Butler; Review Official: Ben Galea; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: SKY Sport 2 - Live from 8.30pm; Channel Nine – Live from 6.30pm (AEST).
NRL.com predicts: Can the never-say-die Cowboys find the formula to stop the seemingly invincible Storm juggernaut? Given Melbourne's nine-game winning run since losing an Origin-affected Round 18 clash, it's a tall ask but the Cowboys look as good a chance as any before them. They'll need plenty to go right but it's certainly not impossible. We'll tip the Storm purely because they've looked most likely right from day one of the season and nothing has changed since then but expect the Cowboys to give it one almighty shake.