O’Neill has no re­grets over leav­ing Mel­bourne


HE was toast­ing a grand fi­nal win the last time Mel­bourne played in a de­cider, but Justin O’Neill has no re­grets about turn­ing his back on the most con­sis­tent mod­ern day NRL club as he chases a third ti­tle in just six years.

The Aus­tralian and Queens­land cen­tre could lay le­git­i­mate claims to be­ing one of the most suc­cess­ful in­di­vid­ual play­ers at NRL level if the Cow­boys can or­ches­trate an up­set of red-hot favourites Mel­bourne at ANZ Sta­dium.

But it might not have been had O’Neill not re­turned to be closer to home in Townsville.

He scored a cru­cial try in the Storm’s drama-charged 2012 grand fi­nal win over the Bull­dogs be­fore go­ing on to claim a premier­ship in his first year with the Cow­boys in 2015.

Be­ing pit­ted against his old club in the big­gest game of the sea­son has been de­scribed as ‘‘weird’’ by O’Neill, who will join util­ity Ben Hamp­ton as ex-Storm play­ers pulling on North Queens­land colours to­day. Mel­bourne en­forcer Jor­dan McLean will fol­low the same path as O’Neill and Hamp­ton when he joins the Cow­boys next year.

‘‘It’s al­ways been a pretty big bat­tle ev­ery time I’ve come up against Mel­bourne and it’s a game I’ve looked for­ward to play­ing against my old team,’’ O’Neill said.

‘‘This game’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be one of the big­gest ones be­ing a grand fi­nal. It’s go­ing to be pretty weird.

‘‘I learned a lot in Mel­bourne. They’re a re­ally pro­fes­sional team. A lot of the stuff is in­stil in you from pretty young and I think it’s stayed with me since I’ve moved to the Cow­boys.

‘‘Be­ing at Mel­bourne and at a young age was the best thing for me. It’s showed me the great traits [you need] such as pro­fes­sion­al­ism. I’ve learned a lot and have been able to take it with me. It was hard to leave Mel­bourne, but it was a de­ci­sion that had to be made at the time and it’s paid off in the end.’’

O’Neill could have been for­given for think­ing his sea­son The Sun-Her­ald GETTY IM­AGES wouldn’t have in­cluded one fi­nals game – let alone a grand fi­nal ap­pear­ance – hav­ing suf­fered a late-sea­son el­bow in­jury while he watched the Cow­boys’ flick­er­ing fi­nals hopes placed on life sup­port in round 26.

But O’Neill has leant some much needed ex­pe­ri­ence to Paul Green’s side dur­ing their gi­antkilling fi­nals run, which is eye­ing their big­gest scalp yet.

The Cow­boys won’t be lack­ing in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the Storm’s in­ner work­ings given their State of Ori­gin con­nec­tion, but O’Neill is un­sure if it will pro­vide a blueprint and to stifling Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.

‘‘We’ve trained along­side them and I’ve prob­a­bly picked up on a few things,’’ he said. ‘‘They’ve been work­ing re­ally well as a team I think and if we’re go­ing to de­fend well we’re go­ing to have to de­fend as a team.

‘‘[But] the cir­cum­stances of com­ing back in my sec­ond game after five weeks off and be­ing in a grand fi­nal is pretty crazy.’’

Cow­boys cen­tre Justin O’Neill is aim­ing to win his third premier­ship to­day.

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