The stage was set for the Parramatta Eels and the North Queensland Cowboys, both vying for the opening grand final spot for 2022.
For the Eels, it was their first preliminary final since that famous win against the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2009.
As the team with the longest active drought – that being 36 years – the Eels have come close several times previously but fallen at the final hurdles.
For the Cowboys, a team nobody expected would make it this far; truth be told, many had them finishing in the bottom four and some even with the spoon.
But here they were, ready to do battle, to try and earn that grand final spot.
As both sides felt each other out to begin the first half, it would be the Eels who grabbed the first try of the game.
After a rather awkward pass on the last tackle, Eels half Mitch Moses spun, weaved out of a tackle, threw a contentious pass to Isaiah Papali’i and the back-rower found Will Penisini to score.
With the bunker unable to rule on possible forward passes, the try was confirmed and the Eels lead 6-0.
Not to be overawed by the occasion, the Cowboys were fresh after the week off and it showed early as Reuben Cotter hit a gap at speed and took Clint Gutherson over the line with him.
The match threatened to turn in the Eels favour after Jason Taumalolo was sin-binned for shoulder contact to the head of Papali’i.
The Eels would make the Cowboys pay as Reagan Campbell-Gillard powered through the defence to score off the back of some slick work from Ryan Matterson.
At 12-6 and seemingly on top, the Cowboys began to get some ascendancy back when they scored off the back of a drop from Waqa Blake.
Luciano Leilua would get the try, barging over in the corner and making it look easy.
A penalty from Valentine Holmes sent the score deadlocked at half-time at 12-all.
The early running in the second half was with the Cowboys as Holmes slotted a second penalty goal to put his side up 14-12.
Murray Taulagi was then able to score in the left corner and put the Cowboys further ahead; Holmes doing his bit with a sideline conversion.
The Eels, however, with everything on the line, dug deep and were able to muscle their way back into the contest.
Campbell-Gillard nabbed his second when he powered onto a Reed Mahoney crash ball.
Shaun Lane, who ahs enjoyed a resurgence in 2021 at the Eels, produced a brilliant pass to put Maika Sivo over and at 24-20, the game was evenly poised.
The Cowboys came close, including having a try overturned when Kyle Feldt stepped on the sideline but that was all she wrote.
The Eels make their first grand final in 16 years and the Cowboys are left disappointed but proud of their 2022 efforts.
To show just how much this game meant to the Eels and half Moses, he sacrificed the birth of his daughter to play tonight, a true sign of how close the side is.
“Really happy for the boys, we’ve made a lot of sacrifices along the way,” Eels coach Brad Arthur said.
“Mitchell Moses made a massive sacrifice for his team-mates today, he didn’t get to see the birth of his daughter, that’s huge, it shows you what it means.”
Todd Payten was not about to make excuses for his side’s loss but he instead praised the Eels for controlling the second half, knowing that is what won them the game.
“The way they managed the second half was much better than ours, I don’t think they made an error and the way they scrambled and defended their line, that’s the difference between a win and a loss,” Payten said.
NRL News Player of the Game
3. Shaun Lane (PAR)
2. Reagan Campbell-Gillard (PAR)
1. Reuben Cotter (NQL)