You can call the first ever all-Queensland grand final between the Broncos and the Cowboys a derby, if you like, but that’s stretching the definition of the word to breaking point. Not only are there 1,350km of sugar cane, cattle and sun-scorched necks separating the Brisbane and Townsville-based teams – a distance considerably further than that from Brisbane to Sydney – but there’s also a gulf in status, wealth and power. If the Broncos are a plutocrat then the Cowboys are a bloke he used to go to school with but now cuts his lawn.
Sunday’s decider, then, more than any of the previous 38 games they’ve contested, gives the Cowboys a gilt-edged chance to upset the natural order and redeem their struggles with a title and an achievement that no-one can take away from them. It’s a chance that has been 20 years in the making.
It was way back in 1995 – a year which featured the presumably unrelated occurrences of Merril Bainbridge’s ‘Mouth’ hitting the charts and Nick Kyrgios being born – when the Cowboys joined the national competition as a northern outpost in the great state of Queensland. Heralding the lean times to come (just five finals series appearances in 20 years, and only one grand final, a losing one) they finished wooden spooners in their debut season.
Things were vastly different down the road. Though they began life in the league just seven years earlier, by the time the Cowboys moseyed into the frame Brisbane had already won two premierships and established the foundations of a dynasty. Based in Queensland’s biggest city, playing out of its biggest ground, and backed by a coterie of deep-pocketed business people content to bask in vicarious glory, the Broncos had it all, including a team so stacked with talent its publicly dry-witted but privately paternal coach, Wayne Bennett, could afford to let Wally Lewis go to the Gold Coast. By the year 2000, vindicating some of Bennett’s seemingly ruthless personnel decisions, the Broncos had won four premierships (one of which was with Super League), and by the time Bennett left for St George Illawarra in 2009 they’d added two more. In the same period the Cowboys had collected three spoons and raised fewer hopes.
One of the scarce highlights in this inglorious opening decade for the Cowboys occurred in 2004 when Graham Murray signed young playmaker Johnathan Thurston from a Canterbury team that would go on to win the premiership that season. Thurston didn’t want to leave the Bulldogs but with Brent Sherwin and Braith Anasta on their books the Bulldogs couldn’t justify the funds to keep him. What’s that sound? It’s the sound of a palm slapping a forehead.
In his debut season at the club Thurston helped get the Cowboys to their first grand final and, with equal parts sweat and pixie dust, he’s been striving ever since to get them back there. Holding on to Thurston all this time, despite the shimmer of citadels to the south, sure has been a coup for the Cowboys. Not only has Thurston become an all-time great in his time in Townsville (forget the nonsense that he needs a premiership victory to attain such status; it’s a team game, not tennis) but his presence gives the Cowboys credibility and makes it easier to lure other talent - who then become better for playing alongside him.
The Cowboys have shown this season they are prone to lapses in concentration – what else explains some of their slow starts? – but when switched on they are powerful, fast and thrilling. And unlike Derek Zoolander, they can turn left and they do so to great effect. With the likes of Thurston, Matt Scott, Michael Morgan, Jason Taumalolo, James Tamou, Jake Granville, Gavin Cooper and Lachlan Coote on their books the Cowboys, under the eye of the underrated Paul Green, have a team capable of winning this premiership.
Much of the interest in this grand final centres around Thurston and Bennett; respectively the best player and coach in the game. Bennett, of course, returned to Brisbane this season after three-year stints at the Knights and, before that, the Dragons. In 2010, he guided that club to its first premiership since 1979. For Bennett it was his seventh title, and arguably his greatest achievement, because at the Dragons he was more than just a coach and a mentor of men but Moses leading the destitute to the promised land after so long in the wilderness. And, in a riposte to his detractors, he was prospering outside of the comforts and riches of Red Hill. Bennett mightn’t have left St George Illawarra better than he found them but no-one at the Dragons would swap that premiership for a less precipitous drop on his departure.
While his experience at Newcastle was, for a host of reasons, a relatively unhappy and unsuccessful one (his team’s overall winning percentage was less than 50%), Bennett did get a good but hardly great Knights team to a preliminary final in 2013 before the wheels fell off in 2014. That took some doing.
As anyone who has tried to rekindle an old relationship will know there’s no guarantee you’ll get back what you had. Such was the situation Bennett faced after leaving Newcastle and returning home to Brisbane. But faster than anyone could have expected Bennett has turned the joint around. It’s been nine years since the Brisbane Broncos won the 2006 premiership. That’s a wet weekend for a team like Cronulla but for the Broncos it’s an age. And now they’re on the verge of a seventh title and reclaiming their crown as the pre-eminent club of the NRL era.
From day one Bennett had his team playing with togetherness and belief. The kind of togetherness you need to build a defensive wall not easily breached – Bennett’s first priority – and the kind of belief you need to go all the way when few expected you to make the eight with any kind of comfort.
Under Bennett, young halves Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford, whom he moved from fullback to five-eighth (as he did years ago with Darren Lockyer), have formed a dynamic partnership, in part because he’s given them enough leash to play their natural game despite the parameters of a well-defined structure. And as always with Bennett he’s unearthed talent that’s been hiding or lying dormant. Like Adam Blair, a superstar in the making with the Melbourne Storm but a punchline at the Tigers. Blair has thrived under Bennett, just as Sam Thaiday has rediscovered his old bullishness.
Sometimes, of course, Bennett doesn’t need to do anything. Players like Corey Parker wring the blood from their own stone, while Justin Hodges, who hopes to play his final NRL game having been exonerated at the judiciary this week for a lifting tackle, will just keep doing what he does until he can’t do it any more. Like Monty Python’s pig-headed black knight. With two premierships and a bundle of Origin and Kangaroo caps in his kit bag he doesn’t need, or deserve, a “fairytale finish” but you wouldn’t bet against him getting one.
If the grand final is enticing due to the contrasting histories of the combatants, it’s better still for the type of football we can expect to be played. Fast and purposeful and, at times, off the cuff, the type of football we don’t see often enough. The Cowboys have, at worst, held their own against the Broncos in recent times and this year they split their home and away games before the Broncos’ superior defence allowed them to get away with a 16-12 win at Suncorp in week one of the finals despite running 500m fewer than the Cowboys.
But that game – and some game it was – was at Suncorp, the seat of their power. This game will be on neutral ground. Well, neutral-ish. The crowd will surely be leaning towards the Cowboys. It would be some story to see Bennett’s return to his alma mater result in immediate success but it’s surely a bigger one for Thurston and his Cowboys to beat their fellow Queenslanders and end 20 years of struggle.