Sorry Brisbane and Sydney fans, but a Storm vs Cowboys grand final should have everyone salivating

Ryan O'Connell Columnist

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    After a somewhat lacklustre regular season, the NRL finals have been scintillating, with plenty of drama and, more importantly, some exceptional football.

    Though you would expect the quality of play to rise once you say goodbye to the bad teams, that’s not always the case, as some finals games can be boring, lopsided or uninspired.

    Not in 2017. The rugby league on display over the last couple of weekends has been of a great standard, and we’re now right down to the business end of the season, with just four teams remaining.

    The Melbourne Storm will face the Brisbane Broncos at AAMI Park in Melbourne on Friday night before the Sydney Roosters take on the North Queensland Cowboys at Allianz Stadium on Saturday, with the winners meeting in Homebush for the grand final.

    With all due respect to Brisbane and Sydney, if you’re not yearning for a Storm versus Cowboys final, you’re either a Broncos or Roosters fan, or you really hate Melbourne or North Queensland.

    The Broncos and Roosters have never been popular teams outside of their own supporter base.

    For many years in the ARL and then the NRL, Brisbane simply represented ‘Queensland’ in the eyes of many New South Welshmen, which immediately put the Broncos offside with the majority of fans south of the border. State of Origin breeds a lot of hatred and pettiness, and for many, that doesn’t end with the third game in the interstate series each year – it carries on.

    With the Broncos always having a fair share of Maroons players, plus the enigmatic Wayne Bennett as coach, it adds up to them struggling to have many people call them their second-favourite team.

    Proving that pettiness isn’t just based on parochial state borders, the Roosters have never been the darlings of rugby league either, despised both in and outside of Sydney.

    Mitchell Pearce Sydney Roosters NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    The general perception is that the Chooks buy players (rather than develop them), cheat the salary cap, and that their chairman, Nick Politis, wields his considerable power to the unfair benefit of his club.

    Fans never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and those reasons to hate the Roosters realistcially don’t actually hold any weight. Yet passion has never been close friends with rational thought.

    Though the Daily Telegraph consistently attempts to promote the notion that Sydneysiders always get behind whatever Sydney team is left in the competition, I don’t think that’s true at all. I certainly feel no favouritism towards Sydney clubs once the Bulldogs are done.

    As such, few people will be hoping for a Broncos-Roosters grand final.

    That’s not to say Melbourne are everyone’s cup of tea. Far from it. You could argue that the Storm may be even more unpopular than the Broncos and Roosters combined.

    Whether it’s their location way outside of rugby league heartland, their guilt in cheating the salary cap, the narrative they brought wrestling into the game, the presence of Maroon royalty – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk – in their playing ranks (that rubs Blues supporters the wrong way), or simply their sustained brilliance and success over many years, Melbourne is an extremely loathed franchise.

    Cameron Smith Melbourne Storm NRL Finals Rugby League 2016

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Like the aforementioned Broncos and Roosters, whether that hatred is fair or not is completely beside the point. Rugby league fandom is built on emotion and tribalism, and a large part of that is not just supporting your team, but hating every other team. This ensures that fans only need a smidgen of proof that the opposition is worthy of being disliked, and their confirmation bias kicks in.

    However, what the Storm do have on their side is that they are very, very good at football. They’ve been the best team in the competition this season, and have been NRL’s for over a decade. They play an attractive style of football and have a number of players who will be remembered as all-time greats, as well as a brilliant coach.

    So if you truly love rugby league, you want to see Melbourne in the final, because you want to see the very best.

    The Storm will need a partner for the big dance though, and what better person than Cinderella for that lovely role?

    The North Queensland Cowboys tick a lot of boxes when it comes to the fairytale underdog. They only barely made the top eight, needing the Dragons to capitulate in order to book their spot in the finals. They’re also playing without their injured skipper – and world’s best player – in Johnathan Thurston, not to mention losing the services of the game’s best prop, Matt Scott.

    Yet they find themselves just one win from the grand final after knocking out last year’s premiers, the Cronulla Sharks, in week one, and then beating Parramatta on Saturday night.

    The only thing that counts against them is the fact they won the competition a few years ago. If you could add ‘premiership drought’ to their narrative, they would surely be the most sentimental favourite in NRL history.

    A Cowboys win would be a fantastic story, and as such, many people will be hoping they can add the Roosters to their list of scalps.

    The Cowboys’ chances aren’t confined to just ‘hope’, though; they’re in with a real shot of another upset on Saturday night. They have momentum on their side on the field, and plenty of momentum off the field as well, with most fans jumping on board the bandwagon.

    North Queensland Cowboys fans NRL 2016

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Yet it’s not these intangible factors that should give the Cowboys optimism they can beat the Chooks, but rather some concrete, rugby league-related reasons they should feel good about their chances.

    They are playing excellent football at the right time of the year and will have built up a lot of confidence from their two thrilling finals wins thus far.

    Meanwhile, coach Paul Green has emerged as a sensational young tactician who brings a level head and calmness to his squad, which ensures the team plays – for the most part – under control and composed. Important qualities that their two vanquished foes did not exhibit.

    Lastly, you can’t win without talent, and though it’s unfair to single out two players from a whole team that has been playing well, Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo have been at the top of their games. They are both now legitimate superstars. When you have a forward making 200 metres a game for fun and a half who controls the game beautifully, but with flourishes of brilliance, you’re in a very healthy position.

    The Cowboys aren’t an average team on a fun roll; they’re a very good team. Combine that with their alluring underdog narrative, and Melbourne’s sheer footballing excellence, and we should all be salivating over a potential Storm versus Cowboys final.

    Ryan O
    Ryan O'Connell

    Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.

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