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.