Why the North Queensland Cowboys are the fairytale that rugby league needs

There's a million ways and maybe more into the magical bedtime story that is the Cowboys' tilt at this year's premiership – but it's hard to go past Te Maire Martin.

Earlier this year, rumours about his personal life kept swirling around the game and his own club, Penrith. And they were rubbish. Absolute filth.

The innuendo about him sleeping with the girlfriends of various teammates were out of control. They were so out of control he was supposedly sleeping with the girlfriend of a player … who didn't have a girlfriend.

"I had my parents ringing me and asking what happened," Martin said last month. "They started second-guessing me. That's what made me the angriest. They would see things on Facebook and would be asking me about it."

Symbol of unlikely success: Te Maire Martin has enjoyed a new lease of life in North Queensland. Photo: NRL Photos

Symbol of unlikely success: Te Maire Martin has enjoyed a new lease of life in North Queensland. Photo: NRL Photos

The rumours weren't true but they took such a toll on Martin that he asked for a release on compassionate grounds and went to Townsville to be as far away from the mess as possible.

He was supposed to be a back-up half who was likely to play some NRL this season.

Now, he's filling out injured star Johnathan Thurston's No.6 jumper and taking advice from him at half-time before trotting down the tunnel alongside Michael Morgan, devising ways to beat the Roosters in the preliminary final.

In the dressing-rooms at Allianz Stadium long after their win, Martin plopped down on a bench next to Morgan and started chuckling. Morgan started chuckling with him.

They had every right to be laughing. Nobody expected this. Not even themselves.

Now they're in the grand final next Sunday night at ANZ Stadium against the cyborgs of the Melbourne Storm and while many are already writing them off, just as they have for the past three weeks, the Cowboys are the sentimental favourites even if they're not fancied by the bookmakers.

None of this is supposed to be happening, which makes it so wonderful. 

You can go back as far as the second round, in mid-March, when prop Matt Scott was forced from Suncorp Stadium after suffering a serious knee injury against the Broncos in the second half.

The Cowboys won in golden point - but soon after lost the best front-rower in the game for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Ouch. Luckily, they still had JT. Best player on the planet and all that. He'll save the day.

And then, in June, they didn't have JT.

Thurston's shoulders have given him grief for years but this was something else.

Master and apprentice: Jonathan Thurston congratulates the man who has stepped into his massive boots, Michael Morgan. Photo: AAP

Master and apprentice: Jonathan Thurston congratulates the man who has stepped into his massive boots, Michael Morgan. Photo: AAP

In Origin II, he played with one arm dangling by his side for most of the match and still slotted the match-winning sideline conversion for Queensland, but days later he sat next to North Queensland coach Paul Green at a press conference and delivered the news.

The shoulder was gone and so was the rest of his season because the hardest choice to make was the only choice to make: immediate surgery so he wouldn't risk further injury and so he could squeeze out one final year of his career.

So now the best playmaker in the game was sitting on the sidelines alongside the best prop in the game. That's $2 million of your salary cap right there sitting with us slobs in the grandstand.

The Cowboys won their next four, then lost their next four, before beating the Wests Tigers and then losing to the Broncos in the final round.

That was on a Thursday night. Plenty of time to watch the rest of the round unfold, although the Cowboys players knew it would come down to the Dragons and the Bulldogs in the second-last game of the final round of the home-and-away season.

Tropical hero: Michael Morgan is swamped by supporters after the Cowboys arrive at Townsville Airport. Photo: AAP

Tropical hero: Michael Morgan is swamped by supporters after the Cowboys arrive at Townsville Airport. Photo: AAP

They knew they were long shots because the Dragons had everything to play for: they could leapfrog the Cowboys into eighth position with victory.

They led 20-14 with 17 minutes remaining and, somewhere in Townsville, the Cowboys were scattered at different locations.

The word getting around is Morgan was on his second beer after the Dragons looked like running away with it.

Instead, the Bulldogs rolled over the top of them. The Cowboys were in. Morgan put down his beer.

For the past three weeks, they have made the long flight down from Townsville, embarrassed three Sydney teams by spanking their bottoms in games they weren't supposed to win, and then flown home to growing crowds at the airport.

In all three, against Cronulla, Parramatta and then the Roosters, Morgan has played with the composure and maturity you would expect from a ball player coming towards the end of their career –  not with it all about to take off.

Bench warmer: Matt Scott was named in the extended squad against the Roosters. Photo: AAP

Bench warmer: Matt Scott was named in the extended squad against the Roosters. Photo: AAP

Morgan may have learned much of his trade watching Thurston from close range, but he also would have picked up the odd trick or two from the men he faces in the decider while playing for Queensland in recent years.

Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater will play together for the final time for the Storm on Sunday night.

Of course, Melbourne should beat the Cowboys. It's been a race to second since March, the Storm's premiership to lose.

No side has won from eighth position. No side except for a Parramatta side inspired by the Hayne Plane in 2009 had made the grand final until the Cowboys beat the Roosters on Saturday night.

But for the past three weeks everyone keeps telling the Cowboys why they can't, and then they show us why they can. Who's to say they can't prove us wrong again?