Luckless Cowboys shattered but proud
From the time hard-working prop Shaun Fensom suffered a horrific leg break just minutes into North Queensland's 34-6 Grand Final loss to Melbourne on Sunday, it seemed the footy gods would not be on their side this time.
But while coach Paul Green admits to being 'shattered' by the result, he remains immensely proud of what his team has achieved against the odds in 2017.
Fensom was taken to hospital with two broken bones – his tibia and fibula – in the lower leg and faces surgery and a long recovery that will almost certainly see him miss at least the early stages of the 2018 pre-season.
Despite the additional pressure on the bench and the interchanges in the face of a relentless and clinical Storm performance, Green said he remained hopeful of causing an upset when his team was first to score in the second half to make it 18-6 with half an hour left in the match.
"We had to be first on the board in that second half, then we had another opportunity up there and 'Morgo' (halfback Michael Morgan) kicked on tackle three," Green said.
"It's easy in hindsight but we probably just needed to spend a bit of time up there and take a bit of juice out of them, maybe get a repeat set. If we got another try in that period I think it would have been a different game. That was our opportunity to put ourselves right in the picture."
Luck was also not on North Queensland's side in the 20th minute when a batted-down kick finished up with the fastest player on the field in Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr, who raced 80m to score against the run of play. North Queensland five-eighth Te Maire Martin would arguably have had a chance to make a last-ditch tackle had he not collided with referee Matt Cecchin but instead the Storm flyer raced away to open the scoring with what was the first of Melbourne's six tries.
"I thought we started really well, traded sets with them really well then the Addo-Carr try against the run of play probably hurt us a little bit, but they were very good," Green continued.
"They controlled field position in that first half really well. Just defensively we didn't execute the way we needed to. We knew what was coming at us but didn't defend it well enough. One of our strengths in the last three weeks has been that execution. Tonight [the contest] went up another level and we just probably were a little bit off the mark defensively.
"I am immensely proud of the boys, I couldn't be prouder of the year we've had and what we've faced and what we've dealt with.
"If you look back at the year, we've taken huge leaps forward. From that point of view there's heaps of positives to take out of the year and I'm really proud but to get to the grand final and then probably to play at least half the game [poorly] is disappointing but that's footy."
The Storm have been the best team in the NRL all year, Green added.
"When you're playing a team like that you need, not luck to go your way but you can't have things go against you like that (the Martin referee collision).
"Losing Shaun Fensom after three minutes also, he's a guy that's done an outstanding job for us defensively and that's probably the area we were off in particular. That really hurt us, put a bit of pressure on some other middle guys as well.
"Being a man down after three minutes puts a lot of pressure on, you're down to basically 16 men and seven interchanges so it does put a lot of pressure on you.
"When you're playing a really good side like we did tonight you need to be on in certain areas and at certain times and we just missed a couple of opportunities right from the start."
This season will have positives that the team carries into next year, Green added.
"The best thing in terms of the position we'll be in for next year is some young guys felt both ends of the spectrum this year with footy," he said.
"They felt the joys and the highs of winning some big games. They also felt the lows of losing big games and big moments as well. They need to take that experience forward and we need to work hard."