There is a mythology to rugby league, and it is built through the annual narrative of the NRL Finals series.
Last year, the Cowboys – easily the best story – won the competition. After years of getting close, 2015 was the year. As a story, you couldn’t write it better. Before that South Sydney, the best story, also won the competition.
This year, the best possible grand final day story for narrative tension in 2016 is the Brisbane Broncos versus the Canberra Raiders.
I’m not saying this is what I think should or who I think will. But in terms of story, it is the best.
I can see all the ‘Bennett is a god’ headlines now. Could he add another trophy to the mantle? Bennett looms large.
Already a legend, the other story angle is he also had his hand in the Raiders early glory. In 2016, he would happily be the stony faced villain who breaks the hearts of Canberra, just to see the smiles on the faces of his own players.
Another premiership would confirm his own greatness in his chosen artform. It’s the young guns versus the greatest coach in rugby league.
Then there’s also Milford versus the people of Canberra story. There’s still some venom in the throats of Raiders fans who saw everything Milford could do, but now have the anxiety that he’ll dazzle them in the wrong coloured jumper and complete the betrayal.
Then there’s the Broncos stories: Queensland Origin villains and heroes like Boyd and Thaiday. The dangerous young halves. If Brisbane won the whole thin, you’d understand. It would just be Bennett and his boys spoiling the party again.
But that’s not their role here, Brisbane are the best possible story for the Raiders, because Bennett is the ultimate challenge to overcome on grand final day. He is a master and will exploit any weakness in defence and the psychology of the Green Machine.
The Raiders story would start and finish in the press, as the Ricky Stuart story. He knows what it takes to get a side ready for the big show, and what a story it would be if a team built out of sticky tape and dreams won the whole competition. It’s the stuff of Hollywood films.
Ricky Stuart, Canberra legend and eternal underdog, took a job that no one else wanted and has done everything required to make a great attacking side. His number nine has Clive Churchill medal written all over him, but numbers one, four, six or seven could easily step into the job on the day.
If the Raiders win, a potential future story will be Canberra’s to write. Can you imagine a future with a Raiders dynasty built on this current structure?
Success brings success. If the Raiders’ playing group stays together and healthy, and the Club focus their attention on the local area, and nearby regions like the Riverina and MIA for junior development – they can win a rugby league hearts and minds campaign.
They will have the potential to build a player and family friendly culture, where Canberra is a home and an aspiration for young footballers and not a stepping stone.
Ricky should also continue keeping an eye on the UK, bringing out stars who fit his culture, as required. They probably find Canberra’s weather pleasant, or at least familiar.
But if the Raiders win the premiership, they’ve re-written their own story, and that in itself is worth celebrating. They’ll be well placed for members and sponsors and other premierships, it’s a Canberra Raiders fairy tale.
And how do we get to this glorious story? How does it build? Well, for the best story along the way, I actually think the Raiders need to lose to the Sharks this week. A week off isn’t as good for the movie.
Then, if the Bulldogs beat the Panthers, the Raiders would face Des Hasler and the Bulldogs, a worthy foe, a side capable of ruining your September in devastating fashion. Dangerous across the park, the Bulldogs challenge would be amazing to watch unfold, we all know the names of Bulldogs who can decimate defensive lines, seemingly at a whim, but a disciplined Raiders could roll the Bulldog, and beating them feels like a necessary step on the way.
Like heroes in mythology, the Raiders would then hopefully, if the story works out, face the destructive Melbourne Storm’s systems of systems approach to the greatest game of all.
For that to happen, and to get the best stories along the way, the Storm need to beat the Cowboys, Brisbane need to beat the Titans. Hayne can be brilliant, but just not too brilliant.
Maybe that can be next year’s story? But the Raiders crushing the Storm with a dominant display in a close contest, suits their story nicely. And again it feels like climbing a necessary obstacle on the way to greatness. Beat Bellamy and the Storm on the way to Bennett and the Broncos.
If the story goes the way I hope, we’d get to see the Cowboys versus Brisbane in week two of the finals, it is always a great game of football.
Thurston is a worthy adversary, and the Cowboys can progress too, if they surprise the Storm, and then Bennett versus Bellamy and Melbourne versus Brisbane unfolds – and hopefully we would still get to see North Queensland versus the Broncos a week later.
Any of these sides is a great side for the Raiders to beat on grand final day, last year’s premiers, the dominant evil of the Melbourne Storm or the love to hate, super-coached miracle working Broncos.
But the grand final that the Raiders, the writers of blogs, newspapers, films and history books want is the Raiders versus Broncos.
The best finish: Raiders for the win. Then we get a delivery of lime green Canberra Milk to celebrate, but that’s a whole other story.