Wynnum, Easts in battle for Pride
They may have won their way through to the Intrust Super Cup decider on the back of a narrow 8-7 Major Semi-Final victory but Northern Pride back-rower Blake Leary knows a battle-hardened team will await them in next week's decider.
Wynnum Manly and Easts Tigers meet for the third time in four weeks at Brisbane's Langlands Park on Sunday after Wynnum came from behind to beat Ipswich in the Minor Semi-Final and the Tigers came up an agonising one point short against the Pride.
Qualifying for the Grand Final on September 28 is a step in the right direction for the Pride who were bundled out in straight sets from last year's finals series with the winner of Sunday's Preliminary Final their opponents.
When the two sides met in Round 26 Wynnum emerged with a gritty 18-14 victory but a week later the scoreline was reversed when the Tigers took out the Qualifying Final 18-12 for a shot at the Pride.
Little is expected to separate them again on Sunday and while Leary is pleased that his side have secured their Grand Final berth, he knows a premiership lap of honour is still a long way away.
"We know whoever we play, whether it's Easts or Wynnum Manly that we're going to be in for a tough game," Leary told NRL.com. "They're both quality sides and I know they'll bring their A-game whichever team we play.
"We tripped at the final hurdle last year but I think there's a different vibe and feel in the air this year and I think we've got something special here.
"I believe we can do it, we just need to put it all into motion."
A premiership would be the perfect way to cap off a stellar season, who recently inked a two-year NRL contract with the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles after an impressive display for Queensland Residents in the curtain-raiser to Origin III.
However a burning desire still remains for Leary and the Pride, who after only dropping five games last season, lost back-to-back games in the finals against Easts and eventual premiers Mackay to crash out of contention.
Making amends for last year's heartbreak currently tops Leary's list, but the 23-year-old says the opportunity to play in the inaugural National Championship Final, played between the winners of the Intrust Super Cup and VB NSW Cup as the curtain-raiser to the NRL Grand Final is another exciting and motivating factor.
"Just to play on Grand Final day, the atmosphere would be amazing," he said.
"I know including myself, a lot of the boys from Cairns have never been to an NRL grand final or played on a stage as half as big as that, so it'll be outstanding but we aren't getting too far ahead of ourselves.
"Wynnum or Easts are what we are focused on now."
Born in Mona Vale on Sydney's northern beaches but moving to the Gold Coast at age 1, Leary is a self-declared Queenslander after playing his junior football with the Nerang Roosters and Keebra Park High School.
Before arriving at the Pride, Leary played two seasons with the Melbourne Storm under-20s in 2009/10, before signing with the North Queensland Cowboys the following season.
Leary played two NRL games for the Cowboys between 2012 and 2013 before being released to the Pride on a full-time basis this season
Standing at 183 centimetres and weighing in at 97 kilograms, the blossoming back-rower will complete a full circle when he returns to Sydney later in the year to prepare for life at Brookvale.
It was his strong display for Queensland Residents in July that caught the eye of Manly officials, with Leary signing on the dotted line in early August.
Pride teammates Javid Bowen, Davin Crampton, Ben Spina, Shaun Nona and coach Jason Demetriou were also involved in Queensland Residents' 24-16 win over the Blues, with Leary's performance recently culminating with XXXX Representative Player of the Year honours at the QRL's annual awards night.
"Word had come through after that Queensland Residents game that Manly were interested," he said.
"[But] I can't really take full credit for the deal I've got. Players like [Pride five-eighth and 2015 Melbourne Storm recruit] Shaun Nona has really been helping me out with the way he's been playing.
"I really don’t believe that Shaun and I were the only two that were offered a contract at the end of this year. We've got such talented players [at the Pride]; I could name pretty much the rest of the team, but blokes like [25-year-old centre] Davin Crampton can't be far off as well."
Leary's prospects of donning the maroon and white of Manly next season look promising with the departures of forwards Jason King (retirement), Glenn Stewart (South Sydney) and possibly Anthony Watmough handing Leary an opportunity to seal a place within the Sea Eagles' final 17.
"I'm really looking forward to it. Just learning down there and the experience of it, I've heard only but good things about Manly and the culture down there," he said.
"I've spoken to [Manly recruitment manager] Dave Warwick and he'll talk me through the moving stage and what to look for and all the rest of it.
"But all of this has just come off the back of the team's performance really. Playing in such a good team like the Pride has helped my individual goals."