From reserve grade to the biggest stage

They're the exile recruits not wanted by their former clubs but now Cowboys pair Shaun Fensom and Te Maire Martin are on a journey to the NRL grand final at contrasting periods in their careers.

Fensom will feature in his first grand final appearance since his NRL debut in 2009, while Martin's wait has been far shorter – just two years in the making at 21 years of age.

Fensom skippered the Canberra under-20s side to premiership glory in the National Youth Competition's first season a decade ago – and will now fittingly be in the stands pre-game for the what will be the last ever Holden Cup game.

Martin was banished to the Panthers' Intrust Super Premiership side by Penrith coach Anthony Griffin after a poor game against Cronulla in Round 7 and has never looked back.

He too will be sitting in the stands on Sunday as his former teammates play the PNG Hunters in the Intrust Super Championship before pulling on the boots on the biggest stage. 

There are seven years and 135 games difference between the pair, and after Fensom failed to feature at the back end of the season in the Raiders' finals charge in 2016, a grand final appearance caps off a remarkable turnaround.  

"Talking to Te Maire after the game I just said to him, how good is this?" Fensom told NRL.com.

"I'm stoked, I come up at the start of the year in February confident this team was where I wanted to go and he managed to get picked up before the [mid-season transfer] cut-off.

"I was talking to CJ (Cowboys forward Corey Jensen) too and told him how I know players who played for 12-15 years and never got a chance to play in a grand final.

"This is his first year in the NRL and my ninth, but we've made it to our first grand finals together so it's one of those things that you can either get it early on in your career or like me wait for so long, or never get there at all.

"It's been a brilliant move."

When Fensom agreed to join the Cowboys weeks before the 2017 season kicked off, but there were no guarantees. Down in the pecking order behind a strong forward pack, there were questions why he chose to move to Townsville at all.

He had Kiwi international Jason Taumalolo ahead of him in the coveted lock position where Fensom made his name  as one of the hardest-working defenders in the game – and one of the most valuable NRL Fantasy players around.

With James Tamou having left the Cowboys for Penrith there a vacancy in the front row and that was the opportunity both Fensom and coach Paul Green thought he could take, on the condition he remodelled parts of his game in the middle.At a crossroads, Fensom ditched the cold Canberra weather to move as far away from the nation's capital as possible. 

"I just knew what team they've got up here and I wasn't getting a good chance in Canberra," Fensom said.

"It's pretty easy to settle in Townsville, nice weather – 27 every day and the community gets right behind the team."

When the side lost Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston to injuries they could have packed up for the remainder of the season, but then the tide changed. 

If the Bulldogs failed to pull off an upset over the Dragons in Round 26, the Cowboys would be on their off-season holidays by now. 

"I honestly thought we were gone that weekend," Fensom said.

"You have your hope, and if we do win it, the Bulldogs will be receiving some cold ones from me."

Both Fensom and Martin have plugged holes on a Cowboys machine that has showed no signs of giving in since their finals campaign began.

"We had a chat around the time Johnno (Thurston) got injured and just said to each other that we knew what we could do," Fensom said.

"We were never going to give up and now we're here it's one of the best feelings ever."