<
>

A NRL Grand Final week like no other, ever

The fate of professional sport in 2021 remains firmly tied to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was always destined to play some sort of role in NRL Grand Final week. Aside from the inevitability, is the irony that the crisis has actually enhanced the resolve of some teams.

"You look to your family members," says Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook, when asked where the extra motivation would come from in Grand Final week.

"Some up here have sacrificed a lot to leave behind their life back home and be up here with us. It's been very important to have them."

It's close to 11pm on Friday night, and the Rabbitohs have blitzed Manly to claim the first Grand Final spot. Cook takes a pause to ponder the idea that COVID-19 both giveth, and taketh away.

"I also think of my mum," the 30 year old tells ESPN on the Suncorp Stadium sideline, as the floodlights around the ground grow dimmer.

"She was up here but had to go back and work on the frontline as a nurse. She's hardly missed a game. She's obviously been busy, so it means a lot."

"The very best thing for us has been having all our families there," a barefoot Benji Marshall tells ESPN shortly after, forced to raise his voice in competition with the ground staff, who have already fired up the ride on mowers.

"After games we go and have barbecues together. They're the things that go unnoticed when it comes to bringing teams together."

The veteran was already deflecting questions surrounding the likelihood of this being his 346th and final career game, as opposed to the excitement of his second Grand Final, coming 16 years after his first. How was he going to soak up the coming week?

"By making the most of it, because you never know when this type of thing's going to happen again," Marshall says.

"I was just on the phone to my wife, and she said; 'Remember 10 months ago when you were still in the rubbish dump and no one wanted you but Wayne?' I was going to retire mate, seriously."

By Sunday, the Panthers are locked in and the idea of 'making the most of it' is being pushed hard by the NRL's media operations team, who want fans in Brisbane to sink right in to the historic occasion. A sweeping release is issued, and the plan to make Brisbane 'the centre of the rugby league universe' is revealed. It all began that very night, as Brisbane City Hall and King George Tower lit up with projections of the season gone by. Among the fanfare, heartfelt messages to the Queensland community. Thanks for your hospitality.

The all important consideration of grand final entertainment was also addressed. Brisbane born songstress Kate Miller-Heidke would be singing the national anthem, there'd be a 40-piece orchestra, and an extremely Brisbane-flavoured runsheet. Before then, we would be treated to installations in the city, light shows, banners of our favourite players; a celebration of what has been made essential by the ever present threat of the pandemic.

Monday brought the little matter of the Dally M's- at Brisbane's recently completed glamour precinct Howard Smith Wharves- to the fore. Tom Trbojevic fighting off Grand Final bound halves Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker in a tight count, his freakish season ascending even higher.

By Tuesday, things were getting real. Five days out and the focus remained very much on the footy. The match officials were unveiled. 'This has clearly been a season to remember, but it's important to acknowledge there wouldn't have been a season without match officials,' Graham Annesley says, amid congratulations to Gerard Sutton ahead of his 7th grand final appointment.

Meanwhile, Souths and Penrith are hosting fan days at opposite Coasts, starting at 11.15am and 5.00pm respectively. A dash up the Bruce Highway to the Sunshine Coast and back down the M1 Motorway to Carrara. Very much doable, in the spirit of the occasion. The Rabbitohs whole squad was up for interviews at 12.30pm, prompting some hasty calculations and traffic estimates. Yep, we can definitely get to both.

As Adam Reynolds trained solo and Benji Marshall filled in for him at Carrara, the love was on in earnest from Rabbitohs fans in attendance.

"He'll be right, he's a tough little bugger," 61-year-old Rabbitohs tragic John tells ESPN. "It's probably just some sort of illusion with him and Bennett."

Mind games, thinks John, who also agrees with the experts who are saying Souths will struggle big time without Reynolds' kicking game.

John is one of a throng of local Rabbitohs fans pinching themselves at the opportunity to see their heroes up close in Grand Final week, at the Gold Coast no less. The media weaves its way through the interview opportunities, crafting narratives to serve their various publications for at least the next few days.

Just a few hours later (1 hour and 57 minutes up the highway to be precise), Penrith rolls out onto Sunshine Coast Stadium. Tevita Pangai has made the call to sit out the big dance, Dylan Edwards is conspicuous in his moon booth and in serious doubt, Isaah Yeo can't escape curiosities about his potentially defining showdown with Cameron Murray. Everyone wants to talk about Ivan versus Wayne. Business as usual.

Meanwhile; radio stations across Brisbane are taunting their listeners with the chance to win one of the few remaining tickets outside the final general allocation, which had swiftly disappeared the previous morning. This was the hottest ticket in town, and Suncorp was set to be heaving come Sunday. Keep listening.

Amid all of it, some breaking news. Four local COVID cases, out and about in the community. Classic timing. Nothing to worry about, says Premier Annastasia Palaczuk. But it's hard to escape the fatalistic sense that Brisbane's historic Grand Final has suddenly, and perhaps inevitably, transformed into a race against the clock. The next 48 hours are critical, says Dr Jeanette Young.

Wednesday was NRL Grand Final legends day. Former Panthers tyro's Petero Civoniceva and Scott Sattler were being rolled out at a Kangaroo Point cafe, alongside more contemporary Rabbitohs stars Isaac Luke and Ethan Lowe; their presence north of the border making them the absolute best people for the job. The 10am scheduling was parallel to the scheduling of the Premier's COVID update.

The giant Queensland government banner draped on the exterior walls of Suncorp Stadium, towering over drivers passing on the busy thoroughfares of Caxton Street, Hale Street and Milton Road, provides a not so subtle reminder that the fate of the game ultimately remains out of the NRL's hands. As much as the government had pushed to secure this occasion for Suncorp, there would be no hesitation in cancelling the whole darn thing. A fact the NRL was well aware of, given Townsville was already on standby as a backup.

The daily COVID update prompts a collective sigh of tentative relief. Just the one case. A growing list of exposure sights, and a tightening of restrictions, but just the one case. Moving the game is an 'absolute last resort' for the Palaczuk government.

"I'm watching this very, very carefully," says Dr Young. "I'm prepared to wait and see if we've got any local transmission."

At Kangaroo Point, Petero Civoniceva is wary.

"A bit going on in Brisbane, but hopefully we can put on a big show on Sunday," the legendary prop says, as Scott Sattler talks about THAT tackle on Todd Byrne from the 2003 Grand Final, for what would have to be the 10 thousandth time. What do these types of moments do to inspire the Panthers?

"We'll find out on Sunday," laughs Sattler.

Thursday rolls around and Brisbane's famous King George square is renamed King Wally square as part of a two-day fan fest. Activities for the kids, murals and appearances from rugby league legends, ahead of both Grand Final teams presenting on Friday afternoon. Plenty to keep fans thinking about the footy.

At 10am, the ticking COVID clock suddenly speeds back up. Six new cases, and level two restrictions are now in place. The first tangible jab is thrown at the Grand Final with the associated reduction in major venue capacity to 75%. Premier Palasczuk remains 'not too concerned.'

The NRL delivers its first missive at 11am. There'll be 39,000 allowed to the game, and refunds will be issued to the last 25% of fans who purchased tickets. COVID taketh away. It's very difficult to remain focused on the footy with all this going on.

"It's going to be disappointing for people, but we have to go with the health advice," says Palaszcuk.

In the background, both the Rabbitohs and Panthers have unveiled their squads, and the little matter of the actual game briefly intrudes on the COVID narrative. Souths are going with the same 17 that got them there, while the bruised Panthers are still sweating on Edwards, keeping To'o on light duties, and monitoring Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota.

Doing the classic footy thing and 'focusing on what they can control,' the rival squads are not indulging any outside noise. The question of who gets the last laugh- the Rabbitohs, Panthers, or the pandemic- remains a source of fascination.

So, who can actually win this; will the Panthers defence hold up to one more onslaught? What do the Rabbitohs have that can actually prove the difference?

"Wayne mate," Benji Marshall says.

"He's still got the touch. I can't wait to see what he has to say on the day. He did one before the prelim and I think he gave himself goosebumps. I was thinking, gee should've saved that one (for the Grand Final).

"We had a major list of goals at the start of the season," says Cook.

"Getting into the top four, getting the first up win, getting the week off, then winning the prelim. So far we're on track- you've gotta give yourself a chance to get to the Grand Final, and that's what we've done."

Like the rest of the rugby league world, they're just taking it one day at a time.