Gus doesn’t believe it is fair to select Reece Walsh at just 18 years old and after just seven NRL games – especially after the Maroons were thrashed in game one.
You are waiting for the bus. It is late. Looking for something to occupy your time, you notice a book on the seat beside you. It looks like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, although you notice someone has crossed out the word ‘story’ and written ‘fairytale’ instead.
You used to read these books as a kid. The title of the book is ‘2016 NRL Finals.’ Your interest piqued, you pick up the book and read the back cover.
“Australian sports fans love a fairy-tale ending, it states. “But even more than that, Australian sports journalists love a fairytale ending. This is why the 2016 NRL finals is guaranteed to have one. But which fairytale will come true? You decide!”
You look up. The bus is nowhere in sight. You turn to page 1.
You are surrounded by fans in purple. It is the first game of 2016. The crowd around you groans as the purple team’s fullback clutches at a shoulder. ‘Oh no,’ you think, ‘the Storm are just the Big 3 and a collection of bit-part rejects from other clubs. They’re gone.’
You don’t realise you have overlooked the handful of Kiwi, Fijian and NSW Country rep players in the side. Time shifts, and you find yourself looking over the shoulder of a journalist as he types the headline ‘Doing It For Billy.’
“Hang on”, you say, “Bellamy would never let it be about one player. Nobody’s said anything like that.”
The journo looks up. “Well, they wouldn’t would they? But fairytales aren’t about facts, they’re about the story. Besides, Billy’s gone. No-one’s saying anything about that either.” He turns back to his keyboard.
If you think the Storm will do it for Billy, turn to his number of career games for the Storm on page 278.
If you think the journo has it wrong, go on to page 2.
It is mid-2015 and a grumpy-faced man sits in front of the assembled press in chilly Canberra. He blandly states that his team won’t be a success until there are Origin quality players in the team. The roar of the crowd is almost a howl. They are baying for blood.
“You’re the coach, mate,” shouts one bloke from behind the safety of his keyboard. “It’s your job to make them Origin quality.” You look at his laptop and see the name Dutski.
Then 2016 whips by in a blur of Moneyball-style recruiting, sparkling attack and a defence that still leaks but is significantly less porous than it once was. The grumpy-faced man insists they haven’t done anything yet, but behind you a Viking clap is starting to get louder.
If you think the Green Machine can match the feats of the last great Raiders side, turn to page 1994.
If not, proceed to page 3.
You can hear the great Jack Gibson’s quote ringing in the air. “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt,” he says.
But as you watch the Sharks grind their way forward up the field, for James Maloney to pass out to Jack Bird to flick inside for a flying Ben Barba, you can feel the crowd reaching for the light switch. The anticipation, the expectation, is palpable. But the wheels are wobbling and the minor premiership which coach Flanagan says nobody cares about fell out of reach. You wonder if the porch lamp will stay on.
To flick the switch and welcome Harold Holt back, go to the year of the Shark’s competition debut and Harold’s disappearance on page 1967.
To leave the porch lamp burning, go to page 4.
The euphoria of last year’s maiden premiership had faded by mid-season. With Johnathon Thurston out nursing a hamstring and Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote not stepping up, the Cowboys are in a slump and their chances of a repeat premiership seem a long way off.
But as you watch the later rounds, the team seems to gel. Thurston is back, Scott Bolton is outplaying his more-fancied forward colleagues and everyone seems to have remembered their role on the paddock. Reminders of how long it has been since a team went back-to-back are starting to pop up.
If you think the Cowboys can replicate the last team to win back-to-back, go to pages 92-93.
If that fairy-tale is over, go to page 5.
The clock reads 80 minutes. The Broncos stand behind the try line. Heads are down. Then a brief reprieve as a kick goes wide, only to see dreams shattered with a dropped ball from the very next play.
Everyone remembers the drop, but it was when that clock read 80 that the dream truly withered. You watch for signs of scars as 2016 gets underway and some are showing. Then, in the middle of the season, it all falls apart.
But as the season closes a quiet murmur builds. The wins start to come. The old stagers find form. The young bulls remember how to hold the ball. The livewires remember how to spark. And the murmur gets louder. Redemption? Redemption.
To see the Broncos achieve redemption from last year’s disappointment, head to page 80.
To ignore the late season charge, go to page 6.
You find yourself in another press conference. It is late October, 2015. An abrupt change in the head honcho’s 5-year plan is announced, and a well-regarded coach is sent packing. You note the incoming coach has a reputation for nurturing youth, but not necessarily at the highest level.
You watch as the Panthers begin the year with an experienced halves combination and a well-regarded hooker. You watch again later as a plane flies overhead to England, bearing two of those players away. Hook has gambled on youth. You can see the irony of the situation: Cleary is the solution, but Cleary was never going to be the solution. In Nathan, not Ivan, the future lies.
Will the son lead where the father was denied? To find out, turn to the younger Cleary’s age on page 18.
If it’s the melting pot for the chocolate soldiers, on to page 7.
You watch from the sidelines as a 130kg behemoth jogs from the reserves bench onto the field. You think you can feel the earth shake. You think back and wonder how. Wasn’t the reduced interchange meant to bring the smaller men into the game?
Nobody told Des that.
The Bulldogs bench is a big as ever. The power forward game plan was meant to be consigned to the past in favour of a faster, nimbler variety.
Nobody told Des that either.
You think it will be a miracle if they go on from here. But with their captain James Graham’s wild eyes, Sam Kasiano’s flailing sprigs and Josh Reynold’s brains snaps, it would be a very scary fairytale indeed.
To see the Bulldogs defy the interchange reduction, follow the numbers down from page 12 to page 10.
To escape that particular fairytale, run to the safety of page 8.
It’s a classic story. The coach takes a team expected to come last, entrusts them to a rookie half in Ash Taylor and a forward leader in Ryan James more famed for suspensions than tries. He instils a rigid discipline, along the way benching the club captains.
Unwanted recruits from elsewhere add some spark. They win the comp, their maiden title, and the rookie half is lauded as a new champion. But that’s not the story here.
You look on as the assembled journalists line up to attribute the success to the season’s late addition, a former NFL player, former Rugby sevens player and reformed Eel. You think it might not be fair, but you suspect that’s how it will play out.
If you think the Titan’s maiden premiership will be attributed to the Hayne Plane, turn to page 49.
If you support one of the other eight clubs, turn to page 2017.
You look up. Your bus has arrived. You leave the book on the seat and jump aboard. As the bus pulls away you think of the fairytale ending you would choose. You wonder if you will be right. You will find out over the next few weeks. But one thing’s for sure: there will be a fairytale ending. Our sports journalists will see to that.