Playmaker Carter Gordon has proved his fitness in a major boost to Wests’ chances of breaking a 16-year premiership drought at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday.
The Melbourne Rebels flyhalf ran on his suspect ankle at Bulldogs’ training on Thursday night to show he’s ready for the StoreLocal Hospital Cup grand final.
Gordon’s ability to make the most of the gains from Wests’ much bigger pack will be a key element of Sunday’s decider against University of Queensland.
UQ will enjoy a boost themselves. Wallaby squad fullback Jock Campbell has been given the green light to play after strong perfromances in the finals series thus far.
Gordon said he was delighted to take his place in the No.10 jersey and share the occasion with younger brother Mason who will play off the bench.
“It’s my first Grand Final since Under-13s on the Sunshine Coast. You don’t get to play in too many so it’s exciting to be part of it,” Gordon said.
“We’ve had a few team dinners together this week. Focusing on our individual roles and getting our heads in the game from the start is really important.
“It’s going to be a tough game against a very good Uni side. We have to play with brutality up front as we have all season and go for the full 80 minutes to get the result.
“Luckily, I’ve had two good training weeks to prove my fitness. I’m good to go.”
The Grand Ginal shapes as a fascinating clash of styles.
The Bulldogs pack has size on its side starting with Sione Latu Talakai, the influential 135kg prop who played for Tonga at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Flanker Connor Anderson, named this week as Alec Evans Medallist as the competition’s Player of the Year, Reds No.8 Seru Uru and Rebels duo Jordan Uelese and prop Cobus Eloff are also part of a formidable pack.
"It's a massive and deserved honour for Connor. He's put in hard yards for this club," Talakai said.
"One thing we have learnt to do better this season is finish off tight games."
The Bulldogs have classy weapons in the backs too through the likes of Gordon, Reds centre Isaac Henry, Wallaby winger Filipo Daugunu and noted finisher Ben Navosailagi.
Uru, returning from a dislocated finger, is some splash of Grand Final experience because he featured in Easts’ 2020 premiership but it’s a lopsided ledger in that area.
All the experience of climactic days like this is with UQ and coach Mick Heenan, who has guided teams to seven straight grand finals.
Flanker Conor Mitchell is a three-time premiership winner under Heenan and that cool been-there-done-that experience counts.
“Uni have a lot of Grand Final experience. We have a lot of experienced Rugby players,” Wests coach Elwee Prinsloo countered.
It extends to the bench where backrowers Harry Higgins, a former US Eagle, and Richie Skelton are both impact types.
“The players are excited for this. Having Carter fit is good for us," Prinsloo said.
“He’s a good game manager, he plays square as a flyhalf so he can attack the line and he’s a strong defender in a channel where Uni like to run.”
Honours between the sides this season could not be more even, one win apiece and the 37-all draw played two weeks ago in the major semi-final.
UQ’s industrious pack has an almost unique make-up. Locks Fergus Lillicrap and Isaac Aedo Kailea both played at prop earlier in the year.
Inside centre Nick Jooste is the tallest in the side rather than any lock so it will be up to backrowers Mitchell and standout Pat Morrey to command lineout ball.
Heenan has retained the centre pairing of Jooste and Kye Oates which performed strongly in last weekend’s 36-22 preliminary final win over Brothers.
It means Rebels centre Lukas Ripley will return from his ankle injury via the bench.
Heenan is acutely aware that UQ have to start better than in the semi-final.
“We didn’t really cope well early with the physical nature of the Wests game. It took time for us to get our momentum (for six tries) and we didn’t manage the back end of the game well either,” Heenan said.
“You can say we have four props in the tight five. I’d call it a creative way to be well prepared for what we are going to face. Fergus and Isaac give us such good weight in the scrum.”
The return of Reds prop Sef Fa’agase from concussion adds another strong scrummager to the UQ front-row. Fa’agase is facing his old club.
For Sunday’s women’s Grand final, Easts have received a turbo charge with the availability of Wallaroos skipper and backrower Shannon Parry for the decider against Bond University.
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