"It's no joke, pal. People die in fairy tales all the time", Max Baer the reigning 1935 heavyweight boxing champion told us in Cinderella Man.
And tomorrow night someone's fairytale will come to a painful end. Just like it did for Max Baer when he was upset by a formerly washed-up battler James Braddock, played by Russell Crowe.
Finally. The Eels are in a preliminary final for the first time in 13 years since the ill-fated 2009 almost fairy tale, and hurling the Arthurian finals' gorilla off its back. It's been a long wait for Eels' fans.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have also had their best season since they won a premiership 7 years ago, coming back from their ill-fated 2021 campaign where they came second last. They've been out in the cold and out of finals for five years, last making the finals in 2017 where they beat the Eels and ended that fairytale.
Indeed, the Eels have never beaten the Cowboys in a finals game (losing 2/2 in 2005, 2017); and it won't get much tougher than Townsville, tomorrow night.
Cowboys: 1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Valentine Holmes 4. Peta Hiku 5. Murray Taulagi 6. Tom Dearden 7. Chad Townsend 8. Jordan McLean 9. Reece Robson 10. Reuben Cotter 11. Tom Gilbert 12. Jeremiah Nanai 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 15. Luciano Leilua 16. Coen Hess 17. Griffin Neame 18. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown 19. Tomas Chester 20. Jake Granville 21. Brendan Elliot 22. Ben Hampton
Eels: 1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Viliami Penisini 4. Tom Opacic (in doubt) 5. Waqa Blake 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali’i 13. Ryan Matterson 14. Bryce Cartwright 15. Jakob Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore 18. Makahesi Makatoa 19. Bailey Simonsson 20. Nathan Brown 21. Ofahiki Ogden 22. Ky Rodwell
The Cowboys are at full strength, and the experienced Kyle Feldt has scored 11 tries in his past 7 matches against the Eels; the most tries of any Cowboys' players. Will he do it again?
No real surprises in the Eels selections, except for a few mild ones. Arthur has called up the talented, yet often defensively vulnerable, Cartwright back in from the cold and demoting 2020 Origin forward Nathan Brown further down the pecking order (or maybe that should not be a surprise). Though the latter might still end up 18th man.
The biggest question is how the team will reshuffle if Opacic - who is in serious doubt - is out. Niukore might end up playing right centre where he has done an admirable fill-in job last week and over the last two seasons.
Townsville: An Eels' graveyard
The Cowboys are undefeated in all seven home finals played in Townsville, with all seven played at Willows Sports Complex.
This will be the first time these two meet at this ground, but Townsville's Grim Reaper has largely had his way with the Eels.
It's not just about the dangerously' talented Cowboys of 2022 who are well-acclimatized, but another tropical double-whammy: humidity and high dew point that makes conditions often miserable. It's something this week's training in-the-heat may not be able to fully replicate. And with the Eels flying in today on a chartered flight, at the last hour, only tell how effective this hit-and-run mission proves.
How much of a role will the real-life climate play? Will it cause the Eels to implode on the back of errors after not be able to execute their second-phase play, critical to their success?
Anyway, let's move on. Cue Russell Crowe, the Cinderalla Man quip, "You drove all the way out here to talk about the weather?
Considering the resurgence of the Cowboys this year, and all the historical evidence, perhaps the Eels could be up against it tomorrow night.
The rise of the Cowboys this year has been on the back of their defence.
Last year, they conceded over 31 ppg (748 points in total) to come second-last with the worst defence. This year, the Cowboys conceded only 15 ppg (361 points in total); second-best.
Perhaps, this might be attributed to Payton's unpredictable "chaos" training. Mentally toughening them to meet any unpredictable scenarios in a game. In doing so, they believe in themselves and deal with obstacles in a game; when things go against them. Townsend has also added experience and allowed the likes of Drinkwater and Dearden to find themselves and pose constant attacking threats.
On the contrary, as noted previously the Eels have the worst defence of all the top-8 teams and concede the most linebreaks and metres which undermines their so-called "power game".
Encouragingly, the Eels have shown improvement of their defence in the last five weeks.
On the whole, it's more organically adaptive and sliding better.
From round one to twenty-two (first 21 games) the Eels made 4.38 linebreaks per game but conceded 5.05. More than they made.
However, since then and over the last five games, they have turned the tide; making 6.20 linebreaks per game and conceding 3.80. A dramatic improvement that validates the eye test.
Last week, against the Raiders in our 40-4 demolition, we saw the best of Sybil. But, the week earlier against the Panthers, we saw Bad-Sybil implode 27-8 when things went against us.
Back in R22, after yet another heavy pounding by Souths, I questioned the Eels' DNA.
Whether they were able to find and keep their Nemo Soul for long enough half-to-half, game-to-game in a very off-and-on Good-Bad-Sybil all year.
And that's the concern with this game: will some of those implosive, bad habits of Bad-Sybil return when under immense pressure and when things go against us?
In last's week's pressor, Brad Arthur put the Eels' poor performance in week one against the Panthers to some mistakes he made. And a different 'Just Go For It' mantra.
"Against Penrith, I thought were a bit tentative and didn't play to our strengths", Arthur conceded.
“Maybe, we built the game up too much against Penrith and that comes back to me".
"So, I need to wear that but at the end of the day you know we've got an opportunity next week and we're going to go after it.”
“Well we've got nothing to lose and that's what we talked about.”
“We just need to go after the game [like the Raiders game]. That's our strength.”
After nine years, maybe he’s finally learnt how to approach finals better? To bring out the best in the team, or find better ways to avoid their worst?
The Cowboys have not quite as much trouble this year with multiple personalities, more consistently practising good habits, keeping their Nemo Soul from regularly slipping through their fingers. This year has been a real coming-of-age for Payton's troops. A good balance. With their mix of youth, experience, and a galaxy of hardening Origin stars they should be up for the challenge. They've shown the ability to come from behind to miraculously prevail. So, there is real character, class, speed and skill in this dangerous team; more than enough Queensland-Origin character.
The Eels are better frontrunners and don't offer as many Cowboys-like come-from-behind miracles. Once they're behind by a bit more than they're comfortable with they rarely prevail.
The Eels will need to get on the front foot and stay there, defending like mad men and play like they did last week against the Raiders.
That's closer to the Eels' true DNA. That's our best chance. Not relying on Queensland-like miracles.
Perhaps, we're not quite the consistent, relentless, grinding "power game" team Arthur may have wanted at one stage; like the Panthers of recent years or Storm of old. The Panthers' loss in finals week one showed who plays that grinding, strangling game better. Perhaps in hindsight, we needed that loss; to unshackle the structured chains we've played with for years.
Sure, we need to be physical. Sure, we defend like possessed madmen as one adaptive unit able to slide. Play the middle tough. Make the metres. Get on the front foot. Play direct. Play with passion, and nail the one-percenters. They're all fundamentals.
But, all that may not be enough. We must also back ourselves with our expansive, and unpredictable second-phase play with our off-the-charts offloading despite the risk of errors. Using the entire field sideline to sideline, whilst moving forward, and switching points of attack abandoning some of the predictable structures that we've seen for years such as settlers and block plays that saw us moving sideways. All easy enough to defend against for a good team that is on. We've seen vignettes of a Raiders-type game during the year. In particular, we saw it in the spectacular first half of our round 15 win over the Roosters; albeit it went missing in the second half true to form.
Additionally, like last week, our entire spine will need to be on, including Dylan's and Moses' running game. They provide the explosive acceleration and speed we lack out wide to counterbalance the Cowboys advantage in speed.
The scene is set for an absorbing, aggressive game of power and skill. It is likely to be a high-scoring affair with both sides likely to play direct and expansive footy on the back of the mad-scrambling defence. Critical moments will decide the game. And, it wouldn't be surprising if the game was a nail-bitter or if one team ran away with it.
For the Eels, the issue has always come back to our ability for multiple personalities that crack under duress when things go against them on the grass. The good news is we only need it for two more weeks to "Just Go For It".
For the Cowboys, they're also likely to 'Go For It' too, but have been out of the pressure cooker of finals for five years and have had only a year to build their impressive spine and team chemistry after being the second-worst team last year. They've had far less time that the Eels. They've also had an easier end-of-season run than the hardened Eels. Will any cracks show when their entire fairytale is on the line? How will the week off affect them? And can the Eels exploit it?
There is only one thing that is certain. One club's fairy tale will end in tears tomorrow night. For the other a Grand Final where glory beckons.