Sydney (AFP) – A formidable Melbourne Storm face the North Queensland Cowboys in the NRL grand final in Sydney on Sunday, keen to atone for their narrow loss in the season decider last year.
The regimented Storm are firm favourites after dropping just four games this year under the guidance of coach Craig Bellamy — a tough taskmaster who has now made the finale seven times.
They were at their imperious best in demolishing Brisbane Broncos last weekend to give themselves the chance to make amends for their 14-12 defeat to the Cronulla Sharks last year.
In contrast, the Cowboys have ridden their luck, pulling off a surprise to stun the Sydney Roosters 29-16 and set up the right to face the Storm.
It capped an exhilarating run for the injury-hit Cowboys, who started the post-season finals season in eighth but beat the Sharks, Parramatta Eels and the Roosters to reach Sunday’s decider.
Even if they manage an upset, coach Paul Green said it probably wouldn’t surpass the Cowboys’ maiden title in 2015.
“If we are lucky enough for results to go our way on Sunday night I think it will be a special moment — any premiership is special,” he said.
“But you only get one chance to win the first one.”
The odds are stacked against them, with the Storm ranking as the most successful NRL club in the modern era.
Throughout their current eight-game winning streak, they are averaging 33 points a game.
– Gay controversy –
Storm skipper Cameron Smith, voted player-of-the-year on Wednesday, said they were treating it as just another game.
“The main concern for us is ourselves, our own preparation and going out the best way we can on Sunday to give ourselves an opportunity of winning,” he said.
“Because if we don’t play well, we know there’s a very good footy side there waiting to take the spoils.”
The game has sparked controversy already with US rapper Macklemore due to perform his hit gay anthem “Same Love” as part of the entertainment, despite complaints from some quarters that it will be politicising sport.
His performance comes with Australia in the middle of a voluntary postal vote on whether to legalise same-sex marriage.
The match will also be notable as the last time Cooper Cronk runs out in a Melbourne jersey.
The influential scrum-half is heading to Sydney for family reasons, but is yet to decide whether he will hang up his boots or join another club in 2018.
Cooper’s long-time team-mate Billy Slater is also thinking about calling it quits.
“It’s the last time I’ll be doing this (with Melbourne) but I’ve really put that out of the back of my mind away from everything,” Cronk said.
“I’m an emotional person and if I get emotional I don’t think I play too well.”
North Queensland claimed their first grand final two years ago with a memorable 17-16 extra-time victory over the Broncos, with a winning drop goal from their mercurial Test star Johnathan Thurston.
Thurston — who won his first grand final with the Bulldogs in 2004 — will miss Sunday’s match with injury in a huge blow to the Cowboys, but key prop Matt Scott is set to return from his recent injury lay-off.