SYDNEY (Reuters) - The North Queensland Cowboys have completed a fairytale run to the National Rugby League’s grand final but few in Australia give them much chance of winning their second title in three seasons against a relentless Melbourne Storm on Sunday.
The Storm are arguably the strongest side in the NRL over the past 20 years, winning four titles -- two of which were stripped for salary cap breaches -- and making three other previous finals including last year’s 14-12 loss to Cronulla.
Under coach Craig Bellamy, who took over in 2003, the team have provided a production line of State of Origin and international players with captain Cameron Smith, fullback Billy Slater and scrumhalf Cooper Cronk considered greats of the game.
The final will mark a farewell to the club for several key players, however.
Cronk has already said this would be his last game for Melbourne as he moves to Sydney for family reasons and an uncertain playing future, while the 34-year-old Slater could also retire. No-nonsense forwards Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean are leaving for Auckland and North Queensland.
Victory would bring Jesse Bromwich some respite to a year in which he was stripped of the New Zealand captaincy after being caught up in a cocaine scandal.
The Storm were the best side in the regular season, winning 20 of their 24 games to clinch the minor premiership, and had by far the best defence and attack, with Suliasi Vunivalu (23) and Josh Addo-Carr (21) amongst the top-four try scorers in the competition.
They also warmed up for the final with a 30-0 thumping of the Brisbane Broncos, who finished third in the regular season.
The Cowboys, who have been without talisman playmaker Johnathan Thurston since mid-June due to a shoulder injury, sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth and final qualifier but have ridden the momentum of Jason Taumalolo to the final.
The New Zealand wrecking ball needs just 54 running metres in the final to become the first forward to pass 5,000 in a NRL season.
Australia international Michael Morgan has taken over from Thurston as the Cowboys’ fulcrum of attack with New Zealand’s Te Maire Martin, a mid-season pickup from Penrith, sparking the team in the playoffs.
The final, however, has become embroiled in the controversy over Australia’s same sex marriage referendum with American singer Macklemore scheduled to provide pre-match entertainment.
The 34-year-old has said he will perform his 2012 song Same Love, which has become an anthem for same sex marriage and topped the charts in Australia in 2013, as part of the show.
Opponents of same sex marriage, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have called for the NRL to stop the song being performed, stating the final should not be “politicised”.
NRL Chief Executive Todd Greenberg, however, publicly endorsed the same sex marriage campaign earlier this month and the organisation said this week they expected Macklemore to perform all of his hit songs.
Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford