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.

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