Manly on the cusp of NYC history
While most of the rugby league world focuses on the dream run of the North Queensland Cowboys, spare a thought for Manly's Holden Cup side who are on the verge of something equally special.
The Sea Eagles will take on the Parramatta Eels in the NYC grand final this weekend; an incredible thought given where they were 12 months ago.
Having made the Holden Cup decider in 2015, the Sea Eagles failed to keep that momentum going with the proud Northern Beaches club registering just three wins last season to claim the dreaded wooden spoon as they struggled to deal with life in the post-Tom Trbojevic era.
The good thing about the under-20s is that things can turn quickly, and the signs were good as Manly claimed back-to-back wins to start the new year. However, a serious leg injury to star centre Tevita Funa sparked a four-game losing streak and another bottom-eight finish loomed.
Instead, some subtle changes to the starting 13 by coach Wayne Lambkin reenergised the squad with guys like Tom Wright and Manase Fainu breathing new life into their attack to have them well and truly in finals contention.
The fact they are even in the finals is somewhat of a miracle given they only snuck into eighth spot by seven points on for-and-against after the in-form South Sydney Rabbitohs went down 40-26 while the Sea Eagles suffered a 14-point loss of their own in Round 26.
Much like the Cowboys in the NRL, no one gave Manly a hope of doing any damage in the post-season.
Fittingly, their giant-killing run started with a comfortable win over North Queensland before they thrashed the minor premiers, Cronulla, and then stormed home late to book a place in the grand final courtesy of a 34-18 win over the third-placed Dragons.
The 2014 Warriors are the only side in NYC history to win the competition from eighth place, and having silenced the doubters every step of the way in September Sea Eagles halfback Cade Cust believes they are a genuine chance to cause another upset when they meet the Eels in Sunday's grand final.
"Last year was a tough season," Cust said after his side's preliminary final win over the Dragons at Allianz Stadium.
"We only got three wins, but the majority of the same team [is here in 2017]. I think we've gone an extra gear with another pre-season and the physicality and mentality has really grown on us. The year helped and we're now in the grand final.
"It's unbelievable. We came eighth and everyone doubted us to make the grand final, but the 30-odd of us in there just had a lot of belief and that's what it came down to. We're there now so it's up to us [to finish the job].
"There weren't any doubts; we knew if we could get there then we'd be a chance. We knocked off the Cowboys, the minor premiers and now St George…anything can happen now.
"We've taken the underdog tag the whole time. We rode it the whole finals series and it seemed to work so we'll do that again in the grand final."
There have been plenty of key contributors for Manly in the post-season, but there's no denying the fact they wouldn't be preparing for a grand final had it not been for Cust's heroics last weekend.
The chief playmaker was at his mesmerising best with three breathtaking try assists before he killed off the contest with a couple of solo tries to seal man-of-the-match honours.
His performance against the Dragons capped a wonderful season that has seen him lay on a team-high 23 try assists while he's also crossed for 11 of his own; a wonderful achievement given he only made the No.7 jersey his own in Round 14.
"I've always said that I'm a half so when I got the chance to prove myself again, I just took it with both hands," he said of his second-half masterclass.
"That's a halfback's job to take control and steer the ship around and that's what happened. I got lucky a few times and I'm just happy it's done and we're in the grand final."
Cust – who was a part of the side that struggled to win a game last year – credited first-grade halfback Daly Cherry-Evans for helping him out after training sessions and added the support from the entire club was driving them through the finals.
"I've trained a few times with the NRL [squad] and Daly and Blake Green are always there to help you out. They'll stay behind to do some extra kicking so I can't thank them enough because they're role models," he said.
"They've all come down and they all get behind us like a bandwagon. There's heaps of support at the club at the moment so it's unbelievable."