Grand finals are big enough occasions as it is, but this year’s NRL decider between Brisbane and North Queensland is special for any number of reasons.
The all-Queensland angle is a dead horse worth beating as two clubs from rugby league’s heartland returning to the game’s biggest stage after almost a decade absent is vitally important for the sport as a whole, but it is far from the only reason to get excited about today’s clash.
Fresh off winning his record fourth Dally M Medal, Johnathan Thurston will be looking to add to his legend by leading a team to a premiership for the first time against good friend and Broncos captain Justin Hodges.
Thurston and his Cowboys will be cheered on by the vast majority of the Sydney crowd as the Broncos’ reputation as one of the NRL’s most widely disliked clubs travels south with them.
Even fans stinging from their team’s lack of representation at the pointy end of the year should get into this clash. It shapes as one of the best games of the year based on the football alone as the Thurston-led attack of the Cowboys take on Brisbane’s vaunted defence.
These teams know each other intimately, having met three times in 2015 with Brisbane winning two games, including this year’s thrilling qualifying final.
Grandstand takes a look at what to expect in a game that could go down as one of the greatest NRL grand finals.
Tale of the tape: Broncos continue to punch above their weight
Not for the first time this season, Brisbane’s forwards will be well and truly out of their weight class when they face North Queensland’s pack in today’s NRL grand final.
Almost always outsized throughout the 2015 season, the Broncos’ success has hinged on a rapid-fire pace that leaves other team’s big men huffing and puffing like they are trying to blow down a little pig’s house.
Brisbane has all but ditched the wrestle and forced the pace, opting to run past rather than over their opponents to great effect.
We saw a similar tactic work for the Maroons in this year’s State of Origin series, but never was a brighter spotlight shone on the genius of the tactic than in the first week of this year’s finals series.
The Cowboys hung with the speed of the game until the smallest Bronco, bench utility Kodi Nikorima, found space between the two forwards at marker – John Asiata and Matt Scott – in the 65th minute and put Anthony Milford in the clear for a game-winning try.
The tactic should be aided by the forecast steamy conditions in Sydney on grand final day, but playing small means there is less margin for error and Broncos back rower Matt Gillett said earlier in the week he and his fellow front men are looking forward to the challenge they have so regularly met this season.
“We obviously don’t have the biggest pack in the game but we’ve got a bit of experience with Blairy (Adam Blair) and Sammy (Sam Thaiday) and Cozza (Corey Parker),” he told Grandstand.
“The boys in the middle have done a great job for us all year but it’s going to take another step this Sunday to get that win and hold that trophy. No doubt it’s always won in the forwards so it’s going to be a big game on their hands.”
When Brisbane lost Josh McGuire to a torn Achilles mid-season, it would not have been unreasonable to look at it as a telling blow to the team’s premiership bid. Jarrod Wallace has stepped up whether starting or from the bench but the biggest difference has been Adam Blair.
Blair went from one of the game’s form props to all but forgotten in three miserable seasons with the Tigers before Wayne Bennett resurrected his career.
The off-season acquisition had an underwhelming start, giving Broncos fans flashbacks to 2014’s big signing flop Martin Kennedy, but the final two thirds of his season have been exceptional thanks to a renewed vigour on both sides of the ball.
Now he and the Brisbane pack face a bunch of Cowboys that have trampled everyone they have come across in recent weeks.
Matt Scott, busted neck be damned, has turned into Shane Webcke with better footwork; James Tamou once again resembles the fleet-footed beast we saw three or four years ago; and Jason Taumalolo, while not looking as devastating as he did to start the season, has the ability to turn a game with one run a la George Burgess in last year’s decider.
The Broncos forwards may not love constantly having to overcome a size disadvantage – Thaiday even said he “hates” playing prop – but they will be raring to go for one more big test before next year’s interchange reduction levels the playing field.
Key man: Brisbane’s left edge, beware Michael Morgan!
The Cowboys’ trophy cabinet has been pretty firmly closed since they came into the league in 1995, but five-eighth Michael Morgan is the key to unlocking it.
Thurston and Gavin Cooper’s combination attacking down the left flank is famously hard to stop, but Gillett and Ben Hunt have done an excellent job protecting that part of the field for the past two years.
As Gillett said, “you know Thurston’s going to bring a 10/10 game”. That means someone has to step up elsewhere on the field and for the first time in a long time the Cowboys finally have the man to do it.
NRL grand final teams
|Darius Boyd||1||Lachlan Coote|
|Corey Oates||2||Kyle Feldt|
|Jack Reed||3||Justin O’Neill|
|Justin Hodges (c)||4||Kane Linnett|
|Jordan Kahu||5||Antonio Winterstein|
|Anthony Milford||6||Michael Morgan|
|Ben Hunt||7||Johnathan Thurston (c)|
|Sam Thaiday||8||Matt Scott|
|Andrew McCullough||9||Jake Granville|
|Adam Blair||10||James Tamou|
|Alex Glenn||11||Gavin Cooper|
|Matt Gillett||12||Ethan Lowe|
|Corey Parker||13||Jason Taumalolo|
|Jarrod Wallace||14||Rory Kostjasyn|
|Mitchell Dodds||15||John Asiata|
|Joe Ofahengaue||16||Scott Bolton|
|Kodi Nikorima||17||Ben Hannant|
No one was tossing and turning on matchday eve, terrified of the prospect of Robert Lui winning a game for North Queensland and the same could be said for the last playmakers to accompany Thurston to the grand final, Justin Smith and Brett Firman.
Now though, focusing too much on the four-time Dally M medallist will see a team promptly trounced as Morgan is on fire.
After a breakout year at full-back in 2014, Morgan has made the switch to six as adeptly as anyone since Lockyer (though the same could be said for Brisbane’s Anthony Milford).
The Cowboys made a mockery of Melbourne’s defence in last week’s preliminary final, particularly the combination of five-eighth Blake Green and left centre Kurt Mann.
Morgan’s running game showed them up badly and Thurston’s kicking and passing sent Justin O’Neill through for his double on misreads by Mann, while Cooper’s try to end the half came immediately after a long break through that left-side defence and you can expect the Broncos’ equivalent to come under intense scrutiny today.
For as good as Brisbane’s defence has been, the left side is a weak spot, allowing 31 tries this year to be ranked seventh in the league while the right side is ranked second with just 23 tries conceded.
Milford and Jack Reed face the daunting prospect of stopping Morgan’s run and Thurston’s regular forays on to that side of the field, something they did not do when they travelled up to Townsville in round 10.
Morgan (who had seven tackle busts and three line breaks on the day) muscled through Milford to score his first two tries and found space in between Milford and Reed to finish his hat-trick, while back rower Ethan Lowe’s try off a Thurston short ball came as Milford was busy watching his opposite number out the back on a block play.
North Queensland won the game 31-20 and Morgan sealed his State of Origin jersey in a performance that put the league on notice.
The Cowboys will also like the look of that edge after the Roosters scored both their tries through Reed’s corridor in their preliminary final at Lang Park.
Reed is a very strong defensive centre but he is very slow. Blake Ferguson’s combination of speed and strength allowed him to brush the Broncos centre and coast to the tryline in almost identical circumstances when Reed found himself too far in-field watching James Maloney.
In most cases, Reed is good enough to recover and has made a living by cutting opposing centre’s legs out from under them.
The good news for Brisbane is Justin O’Neill, as fast as he is, does not pose the same physical challenge as Ferguson, but there is far more bad news.
Adding in Morgan’s try in round three, he has scored 16 points through the Reed-Milford corridor in 2015.
The other bad news is Milford may need assistance covering Morgan and Alex Glenn could be too pre-occupied with Ethan Lowe, who is all of a sudden a serious threat in attack for North Queensland. That will put more pressure on Reed’s ability to make cover tackles on a man who seriously outpaces him.
Morgan has also gone up another level since his disappointing return from injury against Brisbane in their qualifying final and will be even more keen to make a better impression on the Broncos this time.
Key match-up: Thurston-Morgan v Hunt-Milford
The forward battle is intriguing and that may well be where the title is won, but if the two packs more or less break even, then it is on the halves to take over.
Obviously it’s not revolutionary to suggest the halves are important in a grand final (12 of the 29 Clive Churchill Medal winners since the award’s inception have played six or seven) or rugby league in general (23 of the NRL’s 35 Dally M medallists played in the halves), but this year they take on special significance.
Neither of Brisbane’s playmakers had any real big-game experience until this year but have played out of their skin in a handful of opportunities.
The Broncos have fired on the back of their halves all year and Bennett needs to find a way to stop them from going into their shell on the big stage. Milford, in particular, is a candidate to suffer a dip in form.
The Cowboys may target the in-form pivot in an effort to force Hunt, who already shoulders the vast majority of fifth-tackle duties, to take on even more work.
Morgan, meanwhile, has experienced the heat of the Origin furnace, the only thing that comes close to the pressure of an NRL decider, and has beside him a man with two grand final appearances and 33 Origin caps to his name.
If Morgan has a rocky start to the game, there is no better player to take him aside and get his head right than Thurston.
If Milford or Hunt start poorly there is the potential for things to snowball and get out of hand before Bennett has a chance to talk to his playmakers at half-time.
They will receive some guidance from older heads like Hodges, Parker, Thaiday and Blair but the backline in particular is lacking loud, experienced voices.
It’s almost guaranteed Thurston will be brilliant and just about the best player on the field, but he is at least a little bit hurt. Thurston is probably the game’s foremost exponent of playing through injury seemingly unaffected.
On one leg, he sent running mate Cooper through for a late try against the Storm, but a pre-existing groin issue that can flare up at any time as well as a calf cork that has restricted his training this week will be a very real test for him.
Brisbane’s on-field leader, Hunt, has risen to every challenge in his short NRL career and is well equipped to take another huge step in his development.
Milford will be prowling behind Parker and Blair waiting for offloads and his ability to attack a fractured line could change the game in Brisbane’s favour.
Both the Broncos’ halves love to take on the line regularly and the men in the middle need to be on their toes, particularly late in the game.
Picking a winner in this year’s grand final is as hard as any decider in recent memory.
The Broncos were marginally better in week one of the finals but the Cowboys have looked a different beast with a renewed Morgan back in the line-up.
The past two games between these great rivals have gone down to the dying minutes and this game will be the same barring a freak incident in the early exchanges like last week’s epic blunder by Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
The Broncos’ defence has won them countless games but they are coming up against a side that has and will test it mightily, particularly through the middle of the field where the big forwards will look to lay a platform.
As good as the Cowboys are, Thurston is the only thing stopping the Broncos from being overwhelming favourites in this game, but he is good enough to warrant that respect.
If Brisbane watches him too closely, Morgan should flourish on the back of a forward pack that ran over the top of one of the league’s best tackling units last week.
But Brisbane’s defence has been a big game winner for them this season and that ability to weather a storm and rebound with points is critical in big games like this. It may just be what gets them over the line.