Cowboys' purple patch has Storm on notice
North Queensland's remarkable run from eighth place through to the 2017 Telstra Premiership Grand Final has proved to their opponents – short-priced favourites Melbourne – that they are not to be taken lightly, with Storm representatives glowing in their praise of Paul Green's side at a pre-Grand Final press conference.
The Cowboys become the first side under the current finals system and just the third since the NRL era began in 1998 to make the big dance from eighth or lower after Canterbury (1998) and Parramatta (2009).
Minus their two biggest stars they have travelled from Townsville to Sydney for three straight weeks and knocked off fifth (Cronulla), then fourth (Parramatta) then second (Roosters) in increasingly impressive fashion.
Speaking to media, Storm skipper Cameron Smith and coach Craig Bellamy said their team's favouritism will count for little against a side that has proven all its doubters wrong.
"What the Cowboys have done has been quite remarkable even if you took the travel out of it," Bellamy said.
"To finish where they did then have the three weeks they've had, they had three really good wins against top sides, it's been quite remarkable."
Smith had particular praise for his Maroons and Kangaroos teammate Michael Morgan and the job he'd done filling the enormous shoes of injured future Immortal Johnathan Thurston.
"I've been really impressed with 'Morgs', particularly over the last six weeks," Smith said.
"With Johnathan being out for quite an amount of time now, he really has taken on that responsibility of being the chief playmaker.
"There was a time there where he enjoyed being the man out the back and waiting for JT to feed him the ball which he was extremely good at.
"But it's been nice as an older player, I've been lucky to spend a bit of time with him in the Queensland side and the Australian side and watch him develop his game over a few years and that's all come to fruition this season.
"When he's needed to put his hand up and make the big plays and help his team get across the line he's done that. For a guy I played a fair amount of football with I'm very proud of what he's done. We've got a big job on Sunday to try and limit the amount of work he does against us."
Smith defended his own side's form through the finals, which had been uncharacteristically patchy. They had to come from behind at half-time against the Eels at home week one's narrow 18-16 win, and were unusually sloppy in attack against the Broncos last week before engaging the afterburners in the second half to blow the third-placed finishers away 30-0.
"We've done what we needed to do to win, to be honest," Smith said.
"Parramatta came with quite a willing game plan against us and threw everything they had at us. We struggled a little bit there [for 10 minutes] with Cameron Munster in the sin bin [in the first half] and were lucky to scrape away with the win.
"Then against the Broncos our first half wasn't particularly good, especially in attack; we made some crucial errors and turned over a lot of cheap football to the Broncos but in the second half we really knuckled down to what we needed to do and played really well and finished the game strongly."
The phenomenal finish against the Broncos, with 22 points in the final 20 minutes, serves as "a reminder to ourselves what we're capable of doing if we have the right attitude," he added.
"You never come into a Grand Final particularly confident, especially against an opposition like the Cowboys," Smith said.
"We've all witnessed what they've been able to produce over the last three weeks. They've beaten the team that finished fourth, they've beaten the team that finished second. That's a pretty hard thing to do, coming from eighth spot, on the road. It's a special effort from those guys. I'm confident within our own abilities that we can go out and play well but we need to make it happen."