NRL Grand Final preview: Broncos v Cowboys
Telstra Premiership Grand Final
Brisbane Broncos v North Queensland Cowboys
The only certainty in the first all-Queensland Telstra Premiership Grand Final is that at the end of 80 minutes two great warriors who happen to be close friends will find each other out and share an exhausted embrace.
For Justin Hodges or Johnathan Thurston it will be a moment of sheer elation and the realisation of a truly unique achievement; the other will be left in tears barely able to lift his head.
The 'not guilty' verdict delivered by the judiciary on Tuesday night affords Hodges to at least lead the Brisbane Broncos out for one more time in his 251st and final match with the possibility of ending his career in a manner few are privileged to experience.
For Thurston, his burning desire to deliver North Queensland a maiden premiership that formed part of the reason he stayed at the Cowboys would elevate his standing in the game to a level few in history have ever reached.
One of many other intriguing sub-plots surrounds the two coaches: the master and his former apprentice.
Paul Green worked as a halves coach under Wayne Bennett at the Broncos from 2005-2008 before he was promoted to an assistant coach in 2009 under Ivan Henjak. He took Wynnum Manly to back-to-back Intrust Super Cup titles before joining the Roosters, where he coached the under-20s team to a Preliminary Final and served as an assistant in the NRL team's premiership.
And then there's Wayne.
After six years south of the border Bennett's return to Brisbane could barely have been scripted more perfectly with the master coach shaping a competitive team in 2014 into one with an almost unbreakable resolve.
Since Round 5 the Broncos have been permanently situated in the top three on the NRL table and are now 80 minutes from delivering the club's seventh premiership and an eighth for Bennett.
Sentiment has been running almost exclusively the way of the Cowboys but with big brother Brisbane standing in their way will it ultimately prove to be a fractured fairytale?
Watch Out Broncos: Not only is the left side of the Cowboys attack their most effective weapon it is also their most secure, having scored 45 tries and conceded just 19 over the course of 2015. The addition of Lachlan Coote at fullback and Johnathan Thurston's combination with Gavin Cooper allows the Cowboys to throw good attacking shapes at the opposition defence with options short, long or out the back. Antonio Winterstein's 16 tries is the best single-season haul of his career, Kane Linnett has scored 10 tries for just the third time while Cooper's two tries against the Storm took his tally to 11 for the year. Of the 68 tries the Broncos have conceded this season 22 have come down the right edge of Matt Gillett, Ben Hunt, Justin Hodges and Jordan Kahu and they'll need to be on song on Sunday.
Watch Out Cowboys: Momentum is everything in a grand final and scoreboard pressure mounts earlier than normal which is why the Cowboys can ill afford to give the team that misses the least number of tackles any kind of a head-start. In the opening 10 minutes of their games this season the Broncos have scored 11 tries and conceded just two but the figures read vastly different on the North Queensland side of the ledger. The Cowboys have conceded 14 tries in the opening 10-minute period of their games this season, the worst period of the game for them defensively. Besides their 39-0 win over the Sharks in Week Two of the finals the Cowboys have conceded the first try in every one of their games since Round 21; a dangerous habit to be in heading into the premiership decider.
Key Match-up: Ben Hunt v Johnathan Thurston.
As the two favourites for the Clive Churchill Medal it is clear these are the two men with the fortunes of their respective teams resting squarely on their shoulders. Following a breakout season in 2014 Hunt has formed a halves combination with Anthony Milford the envy of almost every other team in the competition but the numbers show why Thurston remains the master for now. Where Hunt excels in taking the line on himself (10 line breaks and 12 tries) Thurston is the master puppeteer, orchestrating 33 line-break assists and 33 try assists compared to Hunt's tally of 15 and 16 respectively. No two players have kicked the ball more in general play in 2015 than Hunt (354) and Thurston (296) and it could be that area of their game which is most telling under the greatest pressure.
History: Played 42; Brisbane 29, Cowboys 11, Drawn 2.
Having lost the previous three finals encounters against the Cowboys the Broncos scored one for the southerners when they won the Qualifying Final at Suncorp Stadium 16-12 in Week One of the finals series. The home side has been victorious on each of the three occasions they have met in 2015 which counts for exactly zero when they meet on neutral territory for the first time on Sunday. Of the four finals the Broncos have played at ANZ Stadium they have won three and lost one while the Cowboys' finals record at ANZ sits at two wins and three losses.
Did You Know: Broncos forward Sam Thaiday stated early in the week that the Cowboys bring the best out in Brisbane and the numbers show that is the case for both teams. When compared to their season average the Broncos perform better against the Cowboys in completion rate, dummy-half runs, line breaks, penalties conceded, errors, kick metres, offloads and effective tackles. For North Queensland, their numbers improve against the Broncos when it comes to completion rate, errors, penalties conceded, kick metres and effective tackles. Two of the best teams of the season at their best on grand final day is a mouth-watering prospect for all footy fans.
What Are The Odds: Broncos $1.88, Cowboys $1.96. There has been twice as much money wagered on the Broncos in comparison to the Cowboys as far as head-to-head betting at Sportsbet is concerned. Brisbane by 13+ is the most popular option in margin betting while Ben Hunt is the best backed player in the first try-scorer market ahead of Broncos teammate Corey Oates. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Ben Cummins; Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Steve Carrall; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton and Luke Patten.
Televised: Grand Final Day coverage starts on Channel Nine from 10am and in HD on Gem.
How We See It: There will come a time late in the game when a moment changes the course of history. Every indicator suggests this is not a game that will be decided with a few furlongs left to run but one in which the winner won't be clear until the shadows of the finishing post. A final masterstroke from JT; a slice of Milford magic; a try-saving act of desperation from Parker; an inspiring charge from Scott that gets his team moving forward as his teammates struggle to find their feet. It will come down to a moment and when that moment comes it will join a pantheon of grand final heroics frozen in time for eternity. Broncos by four points.