And then there were two.
After 192 regular season matches, the distribution of 1,152 Dally M Medal votes and eight finals matches, the premiership race is down to just two teams and it will be left to the Sydney Roosters and Canberra Raiders to fight it out for the ultimate prize at ANZ Stadium this Sunday night.
The Roosters will be attempting to become the first team since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93 to successfully defend a premiership in a unified competition, but they will have to overcome the fairytale team that is the Raiders if they are to also go back to back for the first time since 1974-75.
This puts Trent Robinson’s men in a similar situation to 2003, whereby a fairytale team was standing in the way of them and a successful defence of their premiership, having won the title in 2002.
That year, the Chooks started as favourites to retain their title, but ended up losing to a Penrith Panthers side which in 2001 had finished on the bottom of the ladder.
They will also be hoping to send one of the game’s all-time greats out a winner after Cooper Cronk announced a few months ago that he would retire at season’s end.
After losing to the Rabbitohs in Round 1, the Roosters would rack up eight straight wins, including huge victories over the Broncos and Wests Tigers, as well as a win over the Raiders in Magic Round, before falling foul of the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium in Round 10.
That would trigger a form slump which saw them lose to non-finals teams the Knights, Panthers and Cowboys, while they were also pipped by the Melbourne Storm at the Adelaide Oval in Round 15.
Following the conclusion of the Origin series, the Roosters would rack up seven consecutive victories before hitting a hurdle in the final round, losing to the Rabbitohs for the second time this season at ANZ Stadium.
That defeat, however, proved to be meaningless because the Chooks were already guaranteed to finish second on the ladder.
But the Roosters would defeat their bitter rivals when it mattered most, thrashing the Bunnies by 30-6 in their qualifying final to progress to the preliminary final for the sixth time in seven years.
They then held off the Melbourne Storm by 14-6 to qualify for their eighth grand final this century and make it nine out of ten at the SCG this year, the only blot being their Round 1 loss to the Rabbitohs in March.
Now, they face a Raiders side whom not many gave a chance of reaching the finals this year, let alone contending for a premiership, following two consecutive seasons of finishing 10th on the ladder.
Going into the 2019 season, the Raiders’ best result under coach Ricky Stuart – who played at halfback in each of their three premiership victories in 1989, 1990 and 1994 – was reaching the preliminary final in 2016 which they lost to the Melbourne Storm.
At the end of the regular season, the Green Machine finished in the top four – for just the fourth time this century – with a record of 15 wins and nine losses, with the largest defeat being by only twelve points against the Storm at home in Round 2.
In contrast to the Roosters, whose longest winning streak this year was eight games (Rounds 2-9), the Raiders’ longest winning stretch was four games, achieved twice (Rounds 3-6 and 17-20).
In the run to September, they would suffer three defeats by four points, including those to the Roosters (Round 21) and a shock final round home loss to the Warriors, costing them a top-two finish, which would’ve been their second in four years.
They also lost young forward Hudson Young to an eight-week suspension after he was found guilty of eye-gouging the Warriors’ Adam Pompey in that said Round 25 match.
With the grand final to be the third match that he misses, it means he will not be allowed to return until Round 6 next year.
The Raiders would put behind the disappointment of losing three of their final five matches to again upset the Melbourne Storm on their home deck (they’d also beaten them by 22-18 in Round 22), winning by 12-10 to progress straight to a home preliminary final.
Then, in front of a record home crowd, they would outlast the South Sydney Rabbitohs by 16-10 to progress to their first grand final in a quarter of a century, sending their fans into delirium in the process.
For Ricky Stuart, who coached the Roosters to a premiership in 2002 but has not tasted the ultimate success since, it has in some way vindicated his decision to return to the nation’s capital in 2014 when the club was on its knees.
The lure of coaching the club he played over 200 games for, as well as his desire to move his family back home, proved too tempting, and he now has the chance to join Tim Sheens as premiership coaches in the nation’s capital.
If Stuart and the Raiders do salute, then it would come exactly 17 years after the 52-year-old coached the Roosters to the 2002 premiership, becoming one of only eight men to win a first-grade title in his rookie year.
Coincidentally, he will come up against one of them, Trent Robinson, who did the exact same thing when he steered the Roosters to glory on October 6, 2013, twelve months after replacing veteran coach Brian Smith at the end of the 2012 season.
Thus, October 6 could prove to be a lucky day for either Stuart or the Roosters, who won their 2002 and 2013 premierships under rookie coaches, now combatants this Sunday, on this exact day eleven years apart.
For the Raiders, Iosia Soliola, who previously played under Stuart at the Roosters early in his career, will rack up his 200th game against his former club on Sunday, and a win would mark the perfect celebration to the milestone.
Now that you’ve got the info, it’s time to crunch all the important numbers below.
Roosters versus Raiders
Sunday, October 6
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Round 9 (Magic Round): Roosters won 30-24 at Suncorp Stadium.
Round 21: Roosters won 22-18 at GIO Stadium.
Last meeting in a finals match: Roosters won 38-12 at Allianz Stadium in the 2004 fourth qualifying final.
The stats that matter
* This is the Roosters’ 31st grand final, and fourth this decade, while this will be the Raiders’ sixth grand final but first since 1994. The sides are aiming for premiership number 15 and four, respectively.
* This is the first meeting between the two teams in a grand final, and the first in a finals match since 2004 when Ricky Stuart’s Roosters defeated the Raiders, then coached by Matthew Elliott, by 38-12.
* This is the first time a Ricky Stuart-coached side has reached an NRL grand final since he oversaw the Roosters’ loss to the Bulldogs in 2004. He is aiming for his second premiership as a coach, 17 years after after leading the Roosters to the title as a rookie coach in 2002.
* This is also the first time Stuart coaches against the Roosters in a finals match.
* Joey Leilua is the only player in the Raiders’ playing squad that has previously played in a grand final – in fact he was part of the Roosters side that lost to St George Illawarra in the 2010 grand final earlier this decade.
* Conversely, from the Roosters’ side named to play this Sunday, only Nat Butcher and Sam Verrills have not yet won a premiership medal.
* This will be the first time the two sides play in Sydney since 2015.
* The Canberra Raiders have never won a finals match at ANZ Stadium (a 30-12 loss to the Bulldogs in the third qualifying final in 2006 and a 38-16 loss to the Rabbitohs in the second semi-final in 2012).
* During the three years in which the Roosters played finals under Ricky Stuart (2002-04), they won two from four matches at the ground (the 2002 grand final and the 2004 preliminary final).
Margin: Roosters by eight points.
First try: James Tedesco (Roosters), Nick Cotric (Raiders)
Clive Churchill Medal: Tedesco (if the Roosters win), Josh Papalii (if the Raiders win)
Meanwhile, the NRL Women’s premiership will also be decided on Sunday with reigning premiers the Brisbane Broncos to come up against the St George Illawarra Dragons in the afternoon.
It will pit the competition’s best defence against the best attack, with the Broncos allowing their opponents just twelve points (and none against the Roosters in Round 2) while the Dragons scored 54 points across their three matches.
Having won their first six matches in the competition, the Broncos last week suffered their first defeat when they lost to the New Zealand Warriors by 10-8 at the Sydney Cricket Ground last Saturday night.
That put the Warriors in position to reach the grand final, before the Dragons defeated the Sydney Roosters by 24-16, thanks to two tries from Jessica Sergis (one of them an intercept try), to overtake the Kiwi-based team on percentage and take their place in the decider.
Pivotal to the Dragons moving into second place was their 26-6 win over the Warriors in the standalone match at Mount Smart Stadium in Round 2, in which they were down 0-6 at half-time but put on 26 unanswered points in the second half.
The Red V will have learnt from their 14-4 loss to the Broncos in the first round, in which they were level 4-all at half-time but capitulated in the second half due to poor decision making.
It’ll be hard to predict a winner with any real confidence, though you get the feeling that the Dragons have built momentum at the right time and will fancy themselves against arguably the competition’s early benchmark on Sunday.
A win for the club would see them bookend this decade with premierships, after the men’s side broke a 31-year title drought with a 32-8 win over the Roosters in 2010.
The clash between the Broncos and Dragons comes 26 years after their men’s sides met in back-to-back grand finals in 1992-93, won on both occasions by the northerners.
Whoever is judged best afield will receive the Karyn Murphy Medal.
NRL Women’s Premiership grand final
Brisbane Broncos vs St George Illawarra Dragons
Sunday, October 6
ANZ Stadium, Sydney
This season: Broncos 14 defeated Dragons 4 at Bankwest Stadium in Round 1.