Justin O'Neill of the Cowboys scores a try against the Warriors in round 20.
Justin O'Neill of the Cowboys scores a try against the Warriors in round 20. MICHAEL CHAMBERS

Justin O'Neill in 10-year tug-of-war between clubs

JUSTIN O'Neill is the athletic prodigy considered the equal of Greg Inglis first signed for a measly $500, that the Storm and Cowboys have waged a 10-year tug-of-war over.

He's also one of those rare beasts to emerge from Melbourne's famed finishing school and beat the dreaded Storm syndrome - realising his potential after departing the southern capital.

That untapped talent was first spotted by current North Queensland recruitment manager Clint Zammit when he held a scouting role with the Storm, sneaking under the Cowboys' guard to sign the 14-year-old track and field star on a bargain-basement scholarship.

Realising what they had missed, the Cowboys tried to lure the product from Hughenden (population 1150) home.

It took them the best part of a decade, because the Storm knew what they had in this humble flyer with the fleetest of feet.

"He was more an athlete than a footballer when he first came, but he was an outstanding athlete," Storm football manager Frank Ponissi said.

"In terms of speed and his running technique he's as good an athlete we've ever had here.

"He was a lot different to GI, because GI had the power and footwork as well but in terms of pure speed and running potential he was as good as we've seen here.

"We let him go with a heavy heart for sure due to salary cap and list management decisions.

"We knew that he was still peaking, we expected him to become an Origin and Test player, and since he's left done that.


Justin O'Neill celebrates his try during the NRL Grand Final between Melbourne Storm and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012. (AAP Image/Renee McKay) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Justin O'Neill celebrates a try during the 2012 NRL grand final between Melbourne and the Bulldogs. RENEE MCKAY

"Justin's a wonderful club man and an absolutely outstanding human being too. He comes for a wonderful family and he deserves every success."

On Sunday night O'Neill will line up on former teammate Will Chambers, who he won a 2012 title alongside, before O'Neill added North Queensland's maiden premiership to his collection two years ago.

The same year he and Chambers celebrated that emotional title out the other side of Melbourne's salary cap scandal, the Cowboys came knocking.

And O'Neill knocked them back. Two years later though Chambers continued to block his pathway to a centre spot.

An ankle injury sent O'Neill off the rails and into a reserve grade stint he feared he'd never shake.

When the Cowboys once more called with a $180,000-a-year offer, the Queensland club finally landed the one that had got away.

"Growing up the Cowboys were always the team I supported and I hoped one day that I'd play for them," O'Neill said.

"But in the end it was Melbourne I ended up going down to play 20s for and further my career.

"I ended up debuting and playing a few great seasons down there before finding my way back."

In 2013 O'Neill signed a three-year extension with the Storm, but within 12 months had resolved that his career hinged on being granted a release by the purple powerhouse.

"It was a very tough decision for me. I felt like I was starting to establish myself at Melbourne and it was a club I loved being at.

"When I left Melbourne I was coming off the back of injuries and wasn't playing anything near my best footy.

"I was playing Queensland Cup and thinking that's where I was going to finish up, I would play the rest of my footy in reserve grade if I stayed at Melbourne.

"It was on the cards, a change was what I needed.

"The Cowboys offered a chance to move home, be closer to my family and be part of a club and a team that was on the up and starting to play some great footy.

"And in the end though, I haven't looked back, it's been a great decision. I've been fortunate enough to win another premiership here with the Cowboys.

"That first one for the club was very special and great to be a part of."


Adam Reynolds of the Blues is tackled by Justin O'Neill of the Maroons during State of Origin Game III between the NSW Blues and Queensland Maroons, at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Wednesday, July 13, 2016. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
James Maloney of the Blues is tackled by Justin O'Neill of the Maroons during State of Origin game three in 2016. DAN HIMBRECHTS

O'Neill has since gone on to four Queensland Origin starts, and a Kangaroos Test debut last season.

His rise up north once more raised interest down south.

Earlier this year, when Chambers was weighing up a move to the Roosters, internal discussions at Storm HQ had O'Neill as their priority signing target should Chambers depart.

But Chambers stayed, and O'Neill, off-contract from November 1, hopes to remain in Townsville, where he says he's "played my best footy and established some lifelong friendships".

Already, unlike Dane Nielsen, Ryan Hoffman, Brett White, Adam Blair, Sisa Waqa and so many others, O'Neill's career has surged rather than stalled after leaving the Storm.

He's back for the Cowboys' second grand final in three years, and his third in six - a record he says is shaped by a familiar feeling between the four walls at both clubs, regardless of the 2600km divide.

"I learnt a lot while I was at Melbourne," O'Neill said.

"Because I was there at such a young age, I'd say those practices have been instilled in me and stuck with me.

"I see a lot of their values here at the Cowboys too. They believe in the same sort of things.

"The Storm's professionalism, both on and off the field, has stuck with me, and it's been reinforced up here too. I think I've taken a bit of that with me too because it's basically all I've ever known.

"And the Cowboys have similar beliefs and characteristics here. It was easy to replicate those standards and buy into their culture when I came, and to keep growing and improving."