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O'Neill vows to continue grand final love affair

O'Neill vows to continue grand final love affair
Justin O'Neill scores in the 2015 NRL Grand Final. Copyright: NRL Photos.

Strike Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill has vowed to break out of the worst try-scoring season of his career and continue his love affair with NRL Grand Final Day so that North Queensland can complete their incredible run from eighth position with a win on Sunday.

No team has ever won the Telstra Premiership after finishing in eighth position but given that 12 of the team that will line up against the Storm at ANZ Stadium were there to lift the Provan-Summons Trophy just two years ago there is an inner confidence that a second title in three years is their destiny.

After Brisbane jumped out of the blocks in 2015 it was a superbly worked move from a scrum that saw O'Neill slice through and score the Cowboys' first try of the grand final, three years after he scored the four-pointer that sealed Melbourne's 2012 win over the Bulldogs.

But it's not only in the top grade where O'Neill has shown an affinity for scoring on the game's greatest stage; in 2009 he scored a try in Melbourne's under-20s grand final win over the Wests Tigers.

Finding the try-line has become more problematic for O'Neill this season than at any other time in his eight seasons in the NRL to date and after enduring the longest try-scoring drought of his career to start the season, he broke through for his one and only four-pointer thus far against the Warriors in Round 20.

Since scoring nine tries in his first nine NRL games in 2010 O'Neill has averaged a try in every 2.25 games he has played, making just the one solitary touchdown from 19 games thus far in 2017 an uncharacteristically low return. 

After an unfortunate error it was a tackle by O'Neill on Blake Ferguson that swung momentum back the way of the Cowboys last weekend against the Roosters but the 26-year-old is hoping to add to his tally of three tries from seven career NRL games at ANZ Stadium when it matters most.

"The occasion of the game can lift players sometimes and for me I feel like sometimes big games bring a bit more energy out of me," O'Neill told NRL.com.

"I find I can probably lift a little bit more for bigger games. I enjoy them and I like playing in the big games and that's probably half the reason I was so eager to get back and play.

"I didn't want to be sitting on the sideline for the rest of 2017. I wanted to be back and finishing my season at least giving my best effort playing finals footy."

 


That O'Neill is even in a position to be playing in his third grand final looked highly unlikely after he dislocated his elbow against the Panthers in Round 23 and the Cowboys sat on the precipice of finals oblivion in eighth position.

He made a sparkling return to the team in the semi-final against Parramatta in Week Two of the finals but admitted that when the medical staff surveyed the extent of the damage to his elbow he held little hope of playing again this season.

"Early on when I dislocated my elbow and got back to Townsville and saw the scans and saw some of the damage I'd done I probably thought I was going to be sitting on the sideline for the rest of the year but everything healed quite well," said O'Neill.

"The recovery process started straight away and before I knew it, a couple of weeks in, my range had come back and my strength had come back and I was probably seeing myself as a chance of running back out."

Complicating O'Neill's return in a sudden-death semi-final was a switch from the right to the left side of the field, a switch that now pits him directly against former Storm teammate Will Chambers – a man O'Neill regards as among the best centres in the game.

"I'd definitely think he's up there," O'Neill said of Chambers' status as the best centre in the game.

"We've seen what he can do earlier in the year in the Test game and he's definitely earned his spot as a Test centre.

"He's been playing some great footy for Melbourne Storm as well.

"He's an in-form centre and I think he's going to be a big challenge for me this weekend.

"He's going to be a handful that's for sure."

 

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