Ah September, what a beautiful time of year. Life just seems better, the sun shines brighter, the birds chirp a little chirpier, the days are longer but more importantly our weekends are full of Finals footy. Earlier this week we marveled in the Hawthorn and Geelong rivalry that was again explored last round, and this weekend we look forward to the NRL equivalent, Brisbane v North Queensland.
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The two teams full of Origin stars and Internationals, both explosive in attack and stingy in defence have been unbelievably well matched. Whether in the home and away rounds or on the game’s greatest stage, cheered on by two of the country’s most passionate supporter bases, these teams have staged some of modern times’ most unforgettable matches.
They meet again on Friday at Townsville’s 1300 Smiles Stadium in the First Semi Final, their fifth finals clash in the last five seasons. The last of which might be the best Grand Final of modern times [Canberra fans – I did say might (Ed note: I will fight you)]. A titanic struggle came down to its final moments, the Cowboys with only one shot left in the chamber and the Broncos just one tackle away from Premiership Number 7.
83,000 people shoe horned into ANZ Stadium watched a pulsating second half, the Broncos 14-12 leaders. A Jordan Kahu penalty extended the margin by two in the 43rd minute. That’s where the scoring remained as both sides looked to crack the defence of the other open.
As the clock ticked ever closer to 80 minutes, the Broncos began to play the percentages, finding touch whenever they could, to starve the Cowboys of the opportunities time brings. North Queensland probed ever more desperately as Brisbane resolutely defended their line and their lead.
In the 61st minute a brilliant ball from Jonathan Thurston gave Kane Linnett the chance to level the scores. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be for the Cowboys and the 26-year-old Scottish International, who grassed the pass with an uninterrupted 5 metre run to the line ahead.
Three minutes later, deep in attack, another Thurston pass found a team mate in space. Lachlan Coote, slicing through the defensive line, was able to ground the ball despite a desperate tackle from Brisbane’s Matt Gillett. This time North Queensland were denied by the video ref, who penalised Coote for a double movement.
It appeared the Cowboys might have missed their moment as the Broncos defensive line repelled attack after attack. As glory appeared closer and closer for Brisbane, events conspired to present Kyle Feldt with the greatest moments of his life – and for Ben Hunt his worst.
A lifting tackle from Hunt was penalised in the 76th minute gifting the Cowboys field position when they appeared stuck in the Broncos half. Although the ensuing set of six was ultimately fruitless, with time close to exhausted, at least the ball was at the right end for a team desperate to score.
Brisbane commenced a risk free set, the goal to complete their set as efficiently as possible and put the ball deep as possible into North Queensland’s half. With this in mind, Hunt took the ball forward on the fourth but Feldt had other ideas, the Cowboys winger able to execute a one on one strip giving his team the ball, territory and a minute to conjure a miracle.
Five tackles later and it happened – although it very nearly didn’t. Brisbane correctly attacking Thurston, the play very nearly ended twice, with the four time Dally M Medallist needing all of his elusive abilities to break free of two tackles to keep the play alive and a long hopeful pass to Michael Morgan just before being brought to ground. The crowd grew expectant as Morgan found himself in space, and with a line scrambling in front of him he made his way across field. With two tacklers attempting to bring him to ground, he stayed in motion and, as a result, drew the last man in to tackle him which left Feldt open. Morgan released him with a deft flick pass.
Fittingly Kyle Feldt, the man whose one-on-one strip gave the Cowboys their shot at the line, was there at the end of the play that levelled the score. The Townsville native crossing the line as time expired to give his captain a chance to win the game with a conversion after the siren.
I will never be able to express the tension in the air as Thurston took the conversion attempt every kid takes a million times in the back yard. I suggest you watch this video of Adam Blair intently hoping with every fibre of his body that the Cowboy champion misses to get an insight here.
So for the first time an NRL Grand Final entered Golden Point extra time. With the kick off Ben Hunt suffered the third of his trilogy of ignominies. Instead of grasping it, he joined Martin Bella in the list of costly Grand Final kick off knock-on’s. His mistake granted the Cowboys a gilt edged chance to score the premiership winning point.
In testimony to the tremendous spirit of the Broncos team it took five tackles for Thurston to land the dagger, cold comfort in a match that neither team deserved to lose.
With victory the Cowboys claimed their maiden premiership and the unofficial title of Kings of Queensland. Something that for a long time looked well beyond their reach.
When the Cowboys entered the then ARL in 1995, simple geography guaranteed that there was going to be some spice whenever the Cowboys and Broncos met. By the time the Cowboys came along, the Broncos were already one of the most powerful teams in the premiership with two Winfield Cup trophies safely tucked away in their trophy cabinet at Red Hill.
As North Queensland struggled to find their feet in the national competition, Brisbane dominated. The rivalry was one-way traffic, with the Broncos asserting their position as the Number 1 team in Queensland remaining undefeated in the first nine seasons of skirmishes.
For the Cowboys, after 14 losses and 2 draws, the 17th time proved the charm. In front of a full house at Dairy Farmers Stadium, the Cowboys bettered their Queensland Rivals for the first time in the team’s first ever Finals showdown.
Rather than usher in a new dawn in the rivalry, the victory was more a slight hiccup, with the Broncos winning seven of the next ten contests. It was from this moment that the Queensland Derby finally became a true rivalry. After only being able to claim 4 victories over the southern rivals in 15 seasons, North Queensland finally turned it around.
Since 2010 the two teams have traded victories, with the tally even between the sides as they have both claimed 9 wins from the 18 matches played. The teams are so evenly matched that in 7 of the last 11 games the two sides have been separated by less than a converted try.
Even more extraordinarily, after needing extra time to be separated in the Grand Final last year, in their two match ups this year they again required Golden Point in one while the other was decided by a solitary point. It is fair to say that the two teams are proving harder to separate than a teenager from their phone.
While it would be impossible to try and predict the outcome of their looming clash, the one thing I am sure of, is that I cannot wait to see it.