The last time the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys played this late into a calendar year they were preparing for the first-ever all-Queensland NRL grand final.
That came in 2015 when, two and a half months after Queensland thrashed New South Wales by a record 52-6 in the third State of Origin game at Suncorp Stadium, the two clubs hammered the final nails into the Blues coffin by setting up the decider on neutral territory.
History will tell us that the Cowboys would win their first-ever premiership after Johnathan Thurston booted the title-winning field goal three and a half minutes into extra time.
Earlier he had missed a difficult sideline conversion after Kyle Feldt had scored a try in the corner that levelled the scores right on the full-time siren.
It has been regarded by many as the greatest NRL decider of all time, mostly due to the storied rivalry between the two clubs and the intensity shown by both sides in a match that was played at breakneck speed.
But come this Thursday night and five years after their epic grand final battle the two teams will be playing for pride, with the stakes highest in Brisbane’s case as it’s their final chance to avoid the wooden spoon.
Their 26-12 loss to the Parramatta Eels last week, which came the night after the Bulldogs upset Souths at ANZ Stadium, relegated the one-time powerhouse club to the bottom of the ladder ahead of this weekend’s final round of matches.
It marked their tenth consecutive defeat and it will leave whoever is eventually appointed to replace the departed Anthony Seibold as coach with plenty of work to do in the off-season to restore their powerhouse status.
It is also the first time the Broncos, who prior to this season had missed the finals only twice since 1991, have been this low on the ladder so late into a season.
But they can take heart from the fact that they did defeat the Cowboys 28-21 in Round 1, ruining a momentous occasion for the Townsville-based club, who were christening the new North Queensland Stadium for the first time.
That match was played only two days after the World Health Organisation declared the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as such, but after fears that fans would be locked out of the Cowboys’ first match at their new ground, it was eventually given the green light.
Since then, the Broncos have won only two matches on either side of the season resumption – against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs in Rounds 2 and 9 respectively – and a loss to their northern rivals will see them take home the wooden spoon for the first time in the club’s history.
They will have a major incentive to win on Thursday night as it will be the farewell match for veteran Darius Boyd, who will bow out after 337 matches
– including the clash against the Cowboys – and as the last remaining survivor from the club’s most recent premiership team.
His career will go full circle, with his debut match having come against the Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium in Round 1, 2006, when he scored his side’s only try in a 36-4 defeat in front of over 46,000 fans.
He then went on to feature in the club’s premiership side at the end of the season and later moved to St George Illawarra, where he won the Clive Churchill Medal in his side’s 32-8 grand final win over the Sydney Roosters.
After a fruitless three-year stint at the Newcastle Knights he returned to the Broncos ahead of the 2015 season and in Round 15 this year brought up his 200th game for the club in a 28-24 defeat against the side with whom he won the 2010 title.
Boyd has achieved just about everything he possibly could in rugby league, featuring in two premierships as well as countless State of Origin series victories for Queensland and having represented the Kangaroos 23 times.
On the other hand, the Cowboys have won four matches and only one since Round 7 to drop to 14th on the ladder.
So much so, premiership-winning mentor Paul Green decided to move on after their Round 10 loss to the Penrith Panthers, with former goal kicking centre Josh Hannay taking the reins.
Last Friday night the Cowboys were made to look second rate in the rematch against the Panthers at home. After trailing 20-0 at halftime, they managed to match it with the minor premiers in the second half, which finished 12-all for a final score of 32-12.
And now, to finish off a disappointing season this Thursday night, they can perhaps secure probably their most important victory over the Broncos since the 2015 grand final and sentence the one-time powerhouse club to the wooden spoon for the first time.
The highest the Cowboys can finish is 14th, making this their second consecutive bottom-three finish and third consecutive bottom-four finish (they finished 13th in 2018).
But should the Broncos secure their fourth win of the season, they’ll join the Cowboys on as many wins (four) and will also move off the bottom of the ladder while they await the result of the Bulldogs-Panthers match at ANZ Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Bulldogs, on three wins for the season, will start underdogs against the Panthers, who will be expected to rest many of their top players knowing their ladder position cannot change regardless of the result.
But Broncos fans will still be hoping the Panthers can continue on their winning run so they can be spared the humiliation of seeing their club finish last for the first time in their history.
However, should the Bulldogs upset the Panthers by a sizeable margin, then the Cowboys would drop to 15th on the ladder on percentages, leaving the two premier Queensland clubs to occupy the bottom two places only five years after they met in the grand final.
For the Cowboys and Broncos to finish in the bottom two, as embarrassing as it would be for rugby league in Queensland, the combined margins in the Broncos beating the Cowboys and the Bulldogs beating the Panthers must be around 12 points (see the ladder below).
The bottom three after Round 19:
If the Broncos beat the Cowboys on Thursday night:
If the Broncos lose to the Cowboys: