Monday, October 4, 2010

The path to grand final day is a road travelled by many over the years. Once there, some turn onto the highway that takes them to the ultimate in rugby league glory; a grand final victory. Others though aren’t so lucky. Some will collect grand finals medals more than once; others will never achieve that honour. Some coaches will mentor their sides to victory. In Wayne Bennett’s case, six times. Others will try on numerous occasions but miss out on the ultimate prize; just ask Brian Smith.
Grand finals take no prisoners. No one is spared their wrath. The glare of a capacity crowd on a team can have its impact. Half of that crowd baying for your team’s blood. And then there are thirteen opposition players; they’re not fond of you, either.
The 2010 vintage pitted the attack of the Sydney Roosters up against the discipline and defence of the St George Dragons in an all-Sydney grand final. A first, that, since 2004. The former, a team that finished last in 2009, who under the tutelage of Brian Smith achieved one of the most stunning form reversals in the last seventy years by reaching the grand final. The latter, the once mighty Dragons who had dominated rugby league in the sixties and seventies- but had not won since 1979- had of late become known for their inconsistency. So St George brought in Bennett two years ago to rotate things around for them. But would Wayne’s world bring them that title that they so coveted?
Time would only tell. First there was eighty minutes of energy sapping tackling to complete, bone rattling hits to take, oxygen depleting runs to make, not to mention wet, muddy conditions to navigate. Oh, then there was the pressure cooker environment created by an electric atmosphere that required negotiating.
This is the stuff that sorts the men from the boys. Where you know that a searching examination of one’s mental fortitude is a given. The meek need not apply.
There was nothing meek about the Roosters defence early on. They sent several troops in regularly to extinguish any attacking fires that St George may light. Of the two sides, it was the Roosters who looked the more composed and confident. On the flipside, it was the Dragons that appeared to be suffering from nerves. Michael Weyman knocked on after only ninety seconds. The Roosters threw everything they had at the Dragons during the opening five minutes.
Still, champion sides will take the knocks, then, when opportunity knocks, they open the door and greet it with open arms. This the Dragons did in the 7th minute when in one of their rare forays into the Roosters half thus far, Jamie Soward put up a bomb into the Roosters in-goal. Mark Gasnier chased through and soared above the defence to claim the steeden and touchdown for his 86th career try. With Soward’s conversion, Dragons supporters would have been hearing the first words of the “saints come marching home” entering their thought processes.
Moments earlier, Roosters coach Brian Smith, was seen sitting calmly in the coaches box. Having lost all three of his grand finals appearances as a coach, he must have been wondering if this was going to be number four.
If it hadn’t, it should have crossed his mind over the next ten minutes, as St George started to create some major damage up the middle of the ruck through their forwards. It was relentless and Sydney City was struggling to contain their foe.
Which made it all the more remarkable when the Roosters turned around their predicament with two tries in the space of three minutes. The first in the 16th minute to Dally M captain of the year, Braith Anasta, then followed not long after by Mitch Aubessen, who scythed his way through the usually dependable Dragons defence.
8-6 ahead and momentum has swung back to the Roosters. For the next fifteen minutes they had their way with the match. At various times their fans held sway with a high decibel Roosters chant. Their presence was being felt, and so was their team’s. Bennett, on the other hand looked on grimly as his side absorbed copious amounts of punishment. Not for him to panic though. He had been through it all before in his coaching career that began in 1976. There are some that claim he is the greatest rugby league coach of all time. And not for no reason, either. Any side of Bennett’s is going to hang on for dear life until the tide slowly but surely turns. And that’s what it did.
Soon it was the Dragons portion of the crowd that were finding their voice in the 46th minute as Jason Nightingale dived over in the right corner to reclaim the lead for his side. A splendid sideline conversion from Soward and the St George fans were in raptures.
12-8 isn’t much of lead, though. Bennett knew it when he displayed a rare show of emotion five minutes later as Nathan Fien knocks on from dummy-half. Had the dragons left the door slightly ajar for the Roosters to slip through? Fortunately for Fien the answer was no. In fact, it was the Dragons that came home with a wet sail. In the 60th minute Nightingale was at it again as he once again graced the right corner with his presence as he helped his team extend their lead to ten. Soward added the extra two. It was now a twelve point lead, and things were starting to look ominous for the Roosters.
Their composure was beginning to unravel at a great rate of knots. Errors that wouldn’t normally be committed during the regular season were appearing at the most inopportune times. The Dragon’s sensed that they had their enemy under unbearable pressure. The time was nigh to tighten their grip on the NRL trophy. Dean Young was partially responsible for this as he scored under the crossbar.
Out to a 24-8 lead, the Dragons put the final nail in the Roosters coffin when Fien dived over despite the intentions of two defenders. With another conversion to Soward, the Dragons had won their first premiership in thirty-one years. I had been a long wait, but it turns out that Wayne’s world was the right one for St George.
Walking down from his coaching box, Bennett was all smiles as he shook hands with supporters on his way to the sideline. What he had given so many Dragons fans was a reason to smile. The chance to celebrate a grand final win which many old timers would have wondered whether it would be achieved again in their lifetime. Something for the youngsters of today to remember and aspire to be a part of in the future. The famous V was back in all its glory.
The emotion of the moment seeped into the occasion. None more so than for Dean Young and his father, Craig, who was Captain of the 1979 winning team, as they embraced. The tears emanated as one was able to step out from the others shadow and stand tall as equals, two men who had tackled head on the toughest rugby league arena of all, and conquered.
There were others yelling, whooping, high fiving; they had got to experience the joy of reaching the pinnacle of what only a select few achieve.
Meanwhile, there were Roosters players strewn around the field devastated that fate had dealt them so cruel a fate. Not sure they will ever get another chance.
But, they are a young team on the way up. Their time may yet still come. And if they need any added motivation, all they needed to do was take a glimpse at the ecstasy on the faces of their rivals.
That’s what could be in stall for them if they remember what the pain of a defeat was like and use it as positive for the future.

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