Cowboys pull off the great switcheroo
Any magician worth his top hat will tell you that the secret to any great switch is to complete it without anyone actually noticing.
Unlike the Fine Cotton racing scandal of 1984 where the jig was up 40 minutes after the race had been run and won, Cowboys centres Kane Linnett and Justin O'Neill have swapped sides during the Telstra Premiership Finals Series and no one seems to have noticed.
In an era where players are corralled onto either the left or right side of the field and told the tramlines they are to religiously run time and again, Linnett and O'Neill will run out for the NRL Grand Final on Sunday evening and take up a place on the opposite side of the field to that which they stood two years ago.
As O'Neill battled a knee injury early in the season Linnett shifted from the left to the right to accommodate the inclusion of Javid Bowen but when his regular centre partner returned the pair assumed their normal positions.
But when O'Neill came back from a nasty elbow injury for Week Two of the Finals Series, Cowboys coach Paul Green retained the Linnett-Kyle Feldt combination on the right and shifted O'Neill to the left to partner winger Antonio Winterstein where he made a sparkling return against the Eels.
Former Cowboys and Queensland centre Brent Tate knows first-hand the difficulty that comes with changing sides and was full of praise for how both Linnett and O'Neill have handled the switch.
"It doesn't sound like much but it actually is a really challenging thing to do," Tate told NRL.com.
"I remember doing it once in an Origin match and I really struggled with it.
"If you tackle on a certain shoulder then you go from making tackles on your outside shoulder to your inside shoulder and that is a difficult thing to do when you are defending against quick, agile blokes.
"If you're a left or right-arm ball carrier or step off your left or right foot, it can really affect you coming out of dummy-half when you're trying to use a bit of footwork.
"They are little subtleties but they make a huge difference on what side you play.
"They don't sound like much but they are big things and both the boys have handled it really well."
Convinced that when he dislocated his elbow against the Panthers in Round 23 that he would play no further part in North Queensland's season, O'Neill said having to adjust to a new side of the field and new defensive combinations added a layer of anxiety to his return in a sudden-death semi-final.
"Usually coming back from injury I always find it a bit nerve-racking in the fact that I haven't played for however many weeks I've sat on the sideline," O'Neill told NRL.com.
"It wasn't only that I was coming back and the first game back in five weeks was going to be a semi-final against the Eels, it was also that I was going to be playing on the left side which I probably hadn't played in three or more years."
If being unfamiliar with their surroundings was causing any crisis of confidence amongst the Cowboys centre pairing it certainly didn't show against the Roosters in last week's Preliminary Final.
Although O'Neill had a moment where his hands inexplicably failed him midway through the second half he made up for it shortly thereafter with a hit on Blake Ferguson that swung momentum immediately, Linnett putting Feldt over in the right-hand corner less than 90 seconds later.
Linnett had scored his fifth try of the season 10 minutes prior to Feldt's acrobatic effort but says that he hadn't played regularly on the right since before he came into first grade with the Roosters in 2010.
"I played a fair bit of right side before I came into first grade," Linnett recalled.
"I kind of enjoyed playing on the right side in the NSW Cup for Newtown and obviously when I got an opportunity at the Roosters I think they had [Shaun] Kenny-Dowall on the right side and then I came up here and they had Brent Tate there and then 'Juzzy' (O'Neill) doing a really good job.
"Juzzy got injured this year and I think 'Greeny' thought it would be a good decision for the team to put me over on that side and I guess I've played pretty well so he hasn't changed me."
The greatest concern for O'Neill in making a positional switch during a finals series was forming new combinations in defence but gave credit to mid-season recruit Te Maire Martin and back-rower Gavin Cooper.
With the Storm's penchant for playing to Felise Kaufusi and Will Chambers on their right side the Cowboys' left edge will get its most stringent test but O'Neill has quickly gained confidence in those on his inside and out.
"The players around me helped. Having Te Maire come over this year, he's been outstanding for us," O'Neill said of his new left edge comrades.
"He moves well in defence and he's someone that I find is easy to defend with. He's helped me heaps.
"I know he's had a whole heap of help from Gavin Cooper as well. So the players on that edge, even Antonio Winterstein outside me, he's a great talker in defence and all those players helped me when I came back.
"It made it easy for me to just do my job. I knew if I just did my role in the side that the boys would help me and they did."