Cowboys return to the Promised Land without their ‘Messiah’

For the second time in three years, a Grand Final featuring two non-Sydney clubs will be played at the Olympic Stadium. What an utter embarrassment this is for the Sydney clubs who purport to own the game.

When Josh Dugan was busy burning bridges on social media and missing the team bus, Michael Morgan and his teammates were waiting silently behind the scenes, hoping the Dragons would self-implode and the Cowboys would fall into the finals.

The Dragons, who scored more tries than the Cowboys during the regular season, went on to lose to the Bulldogs in a game that had the hallmarks of final but featured two teams whose cultures were suffering the ill effects of a few self-important, overpaid prima-donnas.

The rest is history. The Cowboys made it through to the finals, defeated the defending premiers, the comeback kings, and the high flyers, and now find themselves in another Grand Final.

Their drought-breaking victory against the Broncos two years ago in the greatest Grand final of the modern era will go down as the finest in their history no matter what happens because Jonathan Thurston was finally crowned a premiership winner. But a win against the giants of the game would give many punters, not to mention rugby league fans, something to smile about.

The club’s culture is what has allowed them to achieve so much success over the past few years. There are few other teams in the competition that could make it through to the Grand Final from eighth position, and even fewer who could do it without two of the game’s greats.

When Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott were ruled out for the entire season, few gave them a chance of moving within touching distance of the finals.

Then former Queensland Origin star Justin O’Neill went down with an elbow injury, and the Cowboys were all but written off.

What followed showed the unity of the club and the resilience of certain players that don’t receive the plaudits they deserve because they play in a side that is headlined by Thurston and fronted by enforcer Jason Taumalolo.

One of these underrated stars is Michael Morgan, who has gone from Thurston’s right hand man to dominant playmaker.

His performances in the finals series without the game’s greatest halfback have suddenly put Morgan within the top echelon of playmakers in the NRL. He has laid down a marker and asked the competition to chase him.

Nathan Cleary might be the best up and coming half in the competition, and Pearce a reliable playmaker at club level with all the talent but little to show for it, but neither has had to overcome the kind of adversity Morgan has this season.

Take one look at the rugby league forums, news sites and on social media and you will see that Morgan has gained a number of supporters across the finals series.

Kids suddenly want to be him, coaches lose sleep over him, and the remainder of the competition envies his ever-expanding skill set.

Many have said that Queensland’s Origin dynasty will die off once Thurston and Cronk depart, but Morgan has shown there is plenty of life in the Maroons when the current stars begin to get their retirement plans in order.

Perhaps the most fascinating battle this Sunday will be the one between the old firm – Cronk and Smith – and the next generation – Morgan and Te Maire Martin.

Cronk has played mentor to Morgan for several years, and has taught him the tricks of the Origin trade. Now he must find a way to shut him down.

Also key to the Cowboys success are Shaun Fensom, Te Maire Martin and 2015 Grand Final star Kyle Feldt.

There are several young halves in the competition that have had their names put up in lights, but Te Maire Martin is going about his work quietly yet effectively.

Then there is Fensom, who has had to work his way back to the top since falling out of favour with the Canberra Raiders.

Fensom spent much of last season in reserve grade but Green, like he does so often, took a punt on him and his investment is now paying dividends.

Think about the number of players Green has pulled from relative obscurity to fill a void in the Cowboys line-up. There’s Granville, who Green coached at Wynnum Manly and brought across to the Cowboys from Brisbane after just 10 first grade appearances; Coeen Hess, who they signed on a whim after a successful U/18’s campaign for the Townsville Stingers; and, of course, Michael Morgan, who is another local product that Green has turned into a million dollar half since taking the reigns.

Somehow, Green has been able to change some of these bits and pieces players into premiership winners and—perhaps more importantly—a single, united team rather than a team of individuals who are more concerned about their own public image than they are their club.

Many clubs go in search of marquee players with over 100 games of first-grade experience to deliver them a premiership. The Cowboys policy, with Green as head coach, has been to bring fringe first graders to the club that other teams wouldn’t take a second look at, and mould them into hard-working footballers that buy into the culture created by Thurston et al.

The Roosters and South Sydney have won premierships at some point over the last five-years by bringing superstars like Sonny-Bill Williams and Sam Burgess to the club. The tradeoff is that when these players depart, they are left with a hole in the salary cap that they must fill with undeveloped players who haven’t been nurtured by the club and mentored by its forefathers.

The Bulldogs are going in search of a premiership next year by using the very same approach, and it might pay off in the future, but when they all depart at once, the club will be left in dire straights. Young players will be thrown into the deep end without knowing what it takes to deal with the hustle and bustle of the NRL.

The Cowboys have been in two deciders in the last three years with only two genuine superstars on their list. The rest have been taught to play for the spirit of the jumper and the loyal fans living in the North of Queensland.

If they play at anywhere below their best on Sunday night, the Storm will carve them up like a Christmas turkey. If they show the fight that has been drummed into them, then they will really fulfil their ‘giant killers’ tag.

NRL Team of the year – as voted by the writers at Nothing But League

The Nothing But League writing team has put their heads together to come up with the nine best players of the 2017 NRL season.

Their selections are as follows:

Fullback:

Tom Trbojevic – three votes/ Billy Slater three votes

Michael Gordon – one vote

If ever there was a player that embodied the lyrics in Chumbawumba’s smash hit I get knocked down, it is Billy Slater. Since returning in round three, Slater has added another notch to his belt, winning his ninth Origin series, and is about to embark on another NRL finals campaign. One more premiership would be a fitting reward for Slater’s resilience and mental resolve.

Many were surprised to see Trbojevic go without an Origin jumper in 2017, but the young Manly number one hasn’t let that phase him. He has played a crucial role in Manly’s journey to the finals and has put on a show at times during the season. Not only is he a try-scoring machine, his defence has improved markedly and it has made all the difference at the back for Manly.

As reward for his efforts, he is the joint winner of NBL’s fullback of the year.

Winger:

Suliasi Vunivalu – four votes

Jordan Rapana – two votes

Alex Johnston and Nick Cotric – one vote each

Most of what Suli does on the field belongs under a big top. But that’s why we love him. In full flight he is poetry in motion; when scoring a try he defies gravity. His fly kick against the Roosters might go down as one of the most bizarre incidents in rugby league history, but it is unpredictable moments like these, and his remarkable strength, that has pushed him over the line as NBL’s winger of the year.

Centre:

Will Chambers – three votes/ James Roberts – three votes

Dylan Walker – two votes

The writers here at NBL simply couldn’t split Roberts and Chambers, with both earning three votes to finish equal first. James Roberts has been perhaps the most frustrating player in the competition this season. At times he dazzles; at others he looks out of ideas. It is his best performances that have caught the eye of NBL’s team of writers. The speed he posses has put him in contention for Origin selection, and there can be no higher praise than that.

If there is a player in the NRL that is more consistent than Will Chambers, I’d like to hear about them. His name might not be put up in lights like the Cronks and Smiths of the world, but he rarely fails to get the job done. Not only does he earn the top gong for wingers, he wins the award for the most dependable player in the NRL.

Five-Eight:

Luke Keary – four votes

Michael Morgan – two votes

Anthony Milford and Gareth Widdop – one vote each

Luke Keary is another player who rarely receives the plaudits he deserves. When Pearce was playing for NSW, Keary took full control of the side and earned the Roosters some crucial victories during a typically treacherous Origin period.

Taking out NBL’s five-eight of the year in his first season as a full-time number six is reward for perseverance. The Bunnies will be licking their wounds and questioning why they didn’t identify his talent and keep him on board.

The Roosters can thank Keary for their current standing on the ladder.

Halfback:

Cooper Cronk – three votes

Nathan Cleary – two votes

Michael Morgan – two votes

Daly Cherry-Evans – one vote

No surprises here, Cronk has taken out NBL’s halfback of the year award. The 2016 Dally M Medalist has had another sterling year, and, like a fine wine, is getting better with age. No one quite knows where Cronk will end up next year, but one thing is for certain – the NRL won’t be the same without him or his professionalism.

Nathan Cleary also earned a respectable two votes from our writers and this comes as no surprise when you look at what he has done for Penrith this year. Like I said in last week’s column, we might just have another Darren Lockyer on our hands. Get your checkbooks out Penrith, this young gun is worth his weight in gold.

Prop:

Paul Vaughan – six votes

Jarrod Wallace and Jesse Bromwich – one vote each

The man that polarized many rugby league critics around the start of this year’s Origin series has won NBL’s prop of the year by an overwhelming majority. Vaughan earned six votes from our writers, the second most in any position.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he is given the call up to next year’s Origin series. This man is simply too powerful to leave out. Not only has he improved the Dragons go forward, he has become as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar when defending the line. Fingers crossed he plays out the entirety of next year without sustaining an injury, because the Dragons are better for it.

Hooker:

Cameron Smith – seven votes

Unsurprisingly, the writers were unanimous in selecting Cameron Smith as the NRL’s hooker of the year. There isn’t too much you can say about Smith that hasn’t already been said; he might just be the finest player in the history of the game. Another big finals series lies ahead for the man who currently holds the record for most representative caps. Will he take Melbourne to another premiership? Or will they stumble at the final hurdle much like they did in 2016?

Second Rower:

Matt Gillett – three votes

Angus Crichton – two votes

Simon Mannering and Boyd Cordner – one vote each

Matt Gillett has continued his dominance at second-row for Brisbane and is set for another action packed finals series that will see him take on greater responsibility. There is no doubt Gillett is one of the best forwards in the game; he is a workhorse that will make over 30 tackles and 100 run meters as a bare minimum.

Matt Gillett has continued his dominance at second-row for Brisbane and is set for another action packed finals series that will see him take on greater responsibility. There is no doubt Gillett is one of the best forwards in the game; he is a workhorse that will make over 30 tackles and 100 run meters as a bare minimum.

As reward for another consistent season, our writers have voted him in as the second-rower of the year.

Lock:

Jason Taumalolo – five votes

Nathan Brown, Jake Trbojevic and Jack De Belin – one vote each.

Powerful, tough, resilient; there aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe this man. He has shown throughout the 2017 season why he remains the game’s premier lock forward. I put Taumalolo in the Glenn Lazarus category, because much like the brick with eyes, he is difficult to tackle and remarkably elusive for a big man. If he ends his career with a premiership record as half as impressive as Lazarus, we are in for one hell of a ride. The Cowboys will be hoping he doesn’t hop between teams like the former prop turned MP.