League: Grand Final as good as it gets

By Graham Lowe

Sunday's grand final signals the start of a whole new era for the game - on and off the field.

Not only have the North Queensland Cowboys and the Wests Tigers rewritten the play book with their razzle-dazzle, never-draw-breath style of football, but their respective fans bring a whole new dimension in passion and dedication to the game.

And no two people have exemplified this passion more than the Cowboys' Mad Dog, real name Wayne Evans, and the legendary Tigers number one supporter until he died two years ago, Laurie Nicholls.

Mad Dog can be recognised at games wearing a Cowboys training singlet, shorts, joggers and a beanie.

Nicholls made famous the Balmain training singlet that he wore to every game. He even wore the same singlet in the freezing Northern English winters following the Kangaroos on tour.

He was the guy many saw on TV shadow-boxing at the end of the tunnel as the Balmain sides ran out.

You can see Mad Dog on the hill at all their home games and he has seen nearly all their games since their introduction to the Winfield Cup back in 1995.

He is a rough-looking bugger and a typical North Queenslander - skin like brown leather and tough as teak.

Having his team in the grand final will be like winning Lotto to him - it's a dream come true.

It is the same for all Cowboys fans, who love their team with a passion matched only by the fans of Wigan in the north of England.

Players lock the memories of a grand final into their minds forever, and so do the fans.

These are two clubs with very different histories. Wests/Tigers are one of the traditional clubs who were the heart and soul of the ARL image during the war with Super League.

The Cowboys were like the Warriors at that time - new kids on the block and behind Super League but with a history all their own.

Despite the NRL propaganda that the war is a thing of the past, there are lingering tensions that will add more feeling to the match as far as some of the game's former and current administrators are concerned.

Tigers fans have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. But as much as I'm sure they are very passionate, they are not in the same league as the North Queensland supporters.

The mayor of Townsville has already said he believes a holiday should be declared in honour of their team, win, lose or draw.

Whatever happens on matchday, Townsville will go off.

Anything either side have achieved up to this game counts for nothing now.

It is what they produce on Sunday that will count.

What a great decision the gods of league made when they shone on the most unlikely grand finalists in memory.

Gone are the days of players tucking the ball under their arm and a crowbar being required to get it loose.

The Tigers and Cowboys are lightning-fast in taking advantage of any chance that appears, and it is great to watch.

The more the ball is passed the more likely a gap is to appear.

Granted, a lot of passing can bring a greater chance of a mistake. But only if you want to look at it that way.

The Tigers, in particular, are one of the most unfancied sides in the NRL and the transformation in the way they play is remarkable.

All their players deserve credit but it is young Kiwi Benji Marshall who has provided the spark to set them alight.

Few in New Zealand will have heard of another key member of the Tigers outfit - head trainer Bryan Hider.

He was originally a trainer for Tim Sheens at Penrith and has been his right-hand man since.

Hider played a vital role for Sheens at the Canberra Raiders and also accompanied him during his coaching years at the Cowboys.

They have developed a partnership and understanding unparalleled in the NRL.

Hider is now more than the head trainer for his coach - he takes a big part in the football management decisions and requirements.

I first came across Hider when I was coach of the Rest of the World team who played Australia during their bicentenary celebrations in 1998. He was my assistant.

Hider is worth as much to a football side as any top international player. That's how much he contributes to the preparation of a team.

But it is the players who have captured the imagination of the league fans in Sydney.

The goal they set for the year was to reach the top four of the playoffs.

They have blown that out of the water with a couple of games that will rate among the upsets of the year.

Against the Dragons last Saturday night the Tigers took the paddock as rank outsiders. But someone must have forgotten to tell them.

The Dragons looked like nervous brides as Marshall showed his class in just the fourth minute of the game to score the first try.

From that moment on the Dragons were never really in it.

They were the side taking all the pressure into the contest and they played like it. Schoolboy errors mounted and they were caught waiting for the enthusiastic Tigers to make the next move.

The Dragons were also far too conservative and deserved to lose.

The Cowboys' display against the Brian Smith-coached Eels was also outstanding.

The Eels looked like they had never met one another, and totally lacked any emotion.

You can be sure it is emotion that is going to play a major part in the grand final.

Smith is renowned for playing down the significance of emotion and its importance in a football team. I think that came back to bite him on the backside.

His players took the field like stunned mullets. Captain Nathan Cayless lacked the inspirational qualities to rally his troops, and the rest is history.

The grand final will be won by a combination of flair, skill, defence and emotion, and it is hard to pick which side will deliver the four on Sunday.

Both teams have got this far playing a similar brand of footy, although in the first round of the finals the Tigers flogged the Cowboys in Townsville 50-6.

That ugly performance and the negative press have helped to inspire the Cowboys since.

I don't see either side carrying the favourite mantle but in saying that, the Cowboys could have the better strike power.

But the Tigers forwards are very underrated, and it is here, not necessarily out in the backs, that could prove to be the Tigers' trump card, particularly with Kiwi loose forward Dene Halatau in magnificent form.

Both sides have been prepared to maintain a draw-and-pass game and as long as they take that into the most important game of all, it promises to be a cracker.

Field position is always important but the lack of it does not intimidate either of these sides. Both have the confidence to attack from their own goal-lines.

But field kicking will also play its role and again both teams are evenly matched.

Cowboys five-eighth Johnathan Thurston and Tigers halfback Scott Prince are two of the best kickers in the game. Both will be put under pressure to minimise their options.

Even goal-kicking is evenly matched, with Brett Hodgson a match-winner in his own right for the Tigers and Josh Hannay equally classy.

In the coaching boxes, Sheens has re-invented himself and is nowhere near the control freak he used to be, and it is paying dividends.

He has recognised that players such as Marshall, Prince, Halatau and Hodgson are talents who need to roam, and these players are rewarding their coach.

Sheens is going to have to call on all his experience to match the emotional charge the Cowboys will ride in on. There is also plenty to be put to rest between the two coaches personally.

Sheens was unsuccessful during his five years at the Cowboys and very unpopular. It was rumoured that if he had an unlimited budget he could outspend it.

As unfair as it sounds, current Cowboys coach Graham Murray has no doubt played on this and with the success he has delivered it is hard to blame him.

Murray is an old style of coach who gives a lot to his players but expects plenty in return.

Emotion and hype play a big part of his approach. Like Sheens, he will also need to be at his best in this department.

It's this hype surrounding the build-up that could prove to be the downfall of either team.

The fans and media play a huge role in the week leading up to the game, and some players, and for that matter coaches, just can't handle it. The balance between siege mentality and open homes is not always easy to achieve.

The outstanding and unexpected success of the Tigers and Cowboys will have thrown the Kangaroos selectors into a tailspin.

Traditionally they have picked heavily from the grand final sides for their test teams.

To have their superstars humbled by the less-fancied Cowboys and Tigers has upset their applecart. And bloody good job.

The Tigers and Cowboys players deserve representative recognition. But I can't see this happening.

As the age-old saying goes, the game will be the winner.

That's because two lightweights have fought above their weight to get there. And now they are in sight of the ultimate goal, the NRL Premiership.

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