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Cowboys must break 77-year hoodoo to do what only two teams have achieved in premiership history

The Cowboys will need to break a 77-year hoodoo in order to lift the NRL trophy on Grand Final night and join just two other teams in history who have gone from second-last to premiers.

Eastern Suburbs in 1945 were the last premiers who finished in the bottom two the previous season.

North Queensland are trying to emulate that rare feat after coming in 15th last season before rocketing up the ladder this year to third, earning them a Qualifying Final showdown with the Sharks at PointsBet Stadium on Saturday night. 

The only other team in premiership history since the foundation year of 1908 to come from second-last the year before to win the competition was Newtown in 1943. 

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And the rosters for each team in the Sydney-based premiership during the World War II years understandably varied greatly each season which could explain why such dramatic turnarounds have only occurred during that period.

So the Cowboys would be just the third team in 115 years to go from one floor above the basement to the penthouse. 

Premiers after finishing second-last the year before

Team Year Previous year Final result
Easts 1945 7th (in 8-team comp) Easts 22, Balmain 18
Newtown 1943 7th (in 8-team comp) Newtown 34, North Sydney 7

Only seven teams in the NRL era have made the Grand Final after missing the top eight the previous season with three of them going on to win the premiership – the 2013 Roosters, the ‘05 Wests Tigers and Penrith in 2002.

The Cowboys’ 15th-placed finish last season is lower than all seven of those teams except for the 2010 Roosters coached by Brian Smith, who were coming off a wooden spoon campaign.

North Queensland’s turnaround this season has almost been a mirror reverse of their 2021 mediocrity in Todd Payten’s first year as coach.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 24: Valentine Holmes of the Cowboys celebrates after kicking the winning penalty goal during the round 19 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Wests Tigers at Qld Country Bank Stadium, on July 24, 2022, in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Valentine Holmes celebrates after kicking the winning penalty goal in the controversial clash with the Tigers. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

They went 17-7 this season with the fourth-best attack (633) and second-best defence (361).

Last year they returned a 7-17 record, scored 460 points in attack to be ranked 13th and leaked a whopping 748 in defence to be dead last, even worse than wooden spooners Canterbury (710) who only won three games all season.

Such a stunning turnaround has Payten in firm favouritism to be Dally M Coach of the Year. His opponent on Saturday night, Cronulla’s Craig Fitzgibbon is probably his biggest rival for the award after lifting the Sharks from ninth to second.

Grand Final teams after finishing outside finals the year before 

(in NRL era)

Club Year Previous year Result
Raiders 2019 10th Runners-up
Roosters 2013 13th Premiers
Bulldogs 2012 10th Runners-up
Roosters 2010 16th Runners-up
Eels 2009 10th Runners-up*
Tigers 2005 9th Premiers
Panthers 2002 12th Premiers
* Parramatta lost the 2009 Grand Final to Melbourne who later had the title stripped for rorting the salary cap

Payten is pleased the “foundation of the club is there for us to build upon” after regenerating the roster over his first 12 months in the job. 

The first step in North Queensland’s bid to defy history is lowering Cronulla’s colours at Shark Park. 

They lost their only encounter with the Sharks in Townsville this season, a 26-12 loss in Round 18, less than 48 hours after Origin III when the Cowboys had four players on Maroons duty – Valentine Holmes, Tom Dearden, Jeremiah Nanai and Tom Gilbert – while their opponents had one – Blues bench utility Sioisifa Talakai.

None of the five Origin reps backed up for club duty while the Cowboys were also missing Maroons lock Reuben Cotter and NSW game-three selection Jordan McLean due to hamstring injuries and Queensland winger Murray Taulagi was sidelined with a bout of COVID-19 so it’s hard to read too much out of that result against a near full-strength Sharks side.

Cronulla bombarded the Cowboys’ makeshift left edge of Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Brendan Elliot with Cronulla’s right-side trio Jesse Ramien, Teig Wilton and Sione Katoa combining for all four of their tries.

“Finals are always a little bit quicker than mid-season rounds, we expect the same. A hostile crowd, we know what we’re walking into,” Payten said at his Thursday media conference before the team made the trek on Friday to Sydney.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

“It’s what we’re in the job for. We know that’s all it is at the moment – an opportunity.”

Always good for a quote, Payten is not concerned about the size of the Sharks pack, bookmakers odds or any reason why his team can’t be successful.

“Have a go at our pack. There are some pretty big bodies in there. Whoever wins the battle in the middle of the park will have their nose in front in terms of getting the win,” he said.

“We are going down to rattle a few cages … We are going to fight fire with fire.”

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