Broncos v Warriors
Holden Cup Grand Final
Sunday, ANZ Stadium, 1.50pm
Few clubs do under-20s rugby league better than the Broncos and Warriors.
This Sunday the Kiwi side will line up in their fourth Holden Cup Grand Final, while Brisbane will play their second since the inception of the National Youth Competition in 2008.
The fruits of both clubs' labour has been there for all to see in 2014 too, with the Broncos' first-grade side fielding 13 graduates from their NYC system this season and the Warriors' no fewer than 17.
It is hard to split them ahead of their clash at ANZ Stadium, but these teams have enjoyed very different journeys to the big dance.
The Broncos finished the regular season in second position with a 16-7 winning record, going down in their qualifying final to the Eels but bouncing back with convincing victories over the Tigers (42-18) and Dragons (24-16).
The New Zealanders on the other hand left just making the top eight until the very last minute. A try just before the siren followed by a sideline conversion snatched a draw against the Panthers in Round 26, enough to send the Warriors to the playoffs on points differential. Their 12-win, 11-loss record suggested to many that they weren't even worthy of playing into September.
Upset victories over the Roosters (44-30) and Knights (23-16) followed, before Stacey Jones's men pulled off the ultimate escape in last week's preliminary final by scoring twice in the last two minutes to beat the Eels 29-26.
The teams have met twice this season, each inflicting embarrassing defeats on their opponent at home; the Broncos won 36-18 at Mount Smart Stadium in Round 15 before the Warriors hit back with a 40-18 win at Suncorp in Round 19.
Brisbane have arguably been the superior side for most of 2014, but just like the Bulldogs in the NRL the Junior Warriors are proving that finals success is all about finding form and momentum at the right time.
Watch Out Broncos: This Warriors side just don't know when they are beaten. Twice in the last month they have kept their season alive with tries in the final minute of games, and pulling off the unthinkable appears to come naturally to these youngsters. The Broncos simply can't afford to be lulled into a false sense of security if they have a hold a lead late in this match; their opponents have proven they can come back from anywhere.
The Warriors grow another leg when it comes time for finals footy. Since the start of the NYC the Kiwis have qualified for the post-season every year, playing a total of 20 playoff games and winning 70 percent of them. They also have plenty of experience on the big stage, having appeared in three of the past four NYC Grand Finals where they won two of them.
Watch Out Warriors: One of the great strengths of the young Broncos is in the centres with power and speed in the form of Tom Opacic and Jordan Drew. Upon his return from a knee injury in Week One of the finals Drew scored a double against the Eels and has already been given a taste of playing in the NRL. Opacic, on the other hand, relies more on strength to find his way to the tryline as he displayed in powering his way over for his side's first try against the Dragons last week. The fringes are often ripe for the picking in under-20s football so the Warriors will need to closely mark these two noted try-scorers.
Where It Will be Won: Both these sides love to offload and throw the pill around, and have fleeted-footed backs who can make something from the smallest of opportunities. Scrambling to contain second-phase play is tiring and eventually your line is bound to betray you. The team who can do the best job of locking the ball up mid-tackle will take a giant step towards winning on Sunday. Brisbane prop Joe Ofahengaue finished the regular season with more hit-ups than any other player in the competition and the New Zealanders will need to limit the damage done off the back of that go-forward. While Warriors captain Sam Lisone has been in sensational form all season and presents Brisbane with the biggest threat in the middle of the park.
Key Match-up: Duncan Paia'aua v Tuimoala Lolohea
The Holden Cup is nothing if not a showcase for some extraordinary young talent and in Paia'aua and Lolohea this year's grand final features two exciting five-eighths going head-to-head. They may be a commentator's nightmare – particularly with how often they are involved – but fans will marvel at their skill. Having signed to play with the Queensland Reds from next season, this will be Paia'aua's last game for the Broncos in the forseeable future while for Lolohea it represents a chance to make up for the disappointment of last year's grand final defeat at the hands of the Panthers. Paia'aua's kicking game will be integral in building pressure for the Broncos while Lolohea's speed and evasiveness makes him the ideal foil for Warriors halfback Mason Lino.
History: These two teams met twice in the space of five weeks (Round 15 and Round 19) with similar scorelines but vastly different results. In Auckland in Round 15 the Broncos solidified their position as one of the competition front-runners with a 36-18 win but in the return leg in Brisbane it was the Warriors who triumphed 40-18. Both these clubs have proud histories in the under-20s competition with the Broncos qualifying for the inaugural grand final in 2008 and the Warriors winning back-to-back titles in 2010-2011 and never failing to qualify for the finals.
Match Officials: Chris Butler and Chris Sutton; Touch Judges: Phil Henderson and Laurie McDonnell; Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 1.30pm
How We See It: They may be known as the entertainers but at the end of the regular season the Warriors boasted the second-best defence in the competition, so don't assume Stacey Jones's young men are all flash and no substance. The Broncos have shown that they have the composure to fight back from early deficits against both the Wests Tigers and Dragons in their last two starts but wouldn't want to give the Warriors too much early momentum. This will have swings, twists, turns and surprises and it may take longer than 80 minutes to find a decider. It's been an extraordinary run from eighth spot by the Warriors but they may have ridden their luck one week too far. Broncos by eight points.