After everything was said and done, it was the teams ranked first and second who remain to do battle in the NRL grand final.
After 20 rounds, 29 weeks, 1165 tries and one too many trips to an Italian restaurant, the regular season of the NRL has finished.
Penrith lifted the JJ Giltinan Shield thanks to one of the most dominant, consistent showings in memory. But that all counts for nothing if they then go and blow their lines. If, after dropping three points all season, they drop a clanger in the finals, that consistent form will be forgotten by everyone bar a few trainspotters on the Nepean River.
We don’t seem to appreciate the league leaders, and that doesn’t seem fair to me. Life isn’t fair, I know, but unlike the bunker, the Roosters’ continued domination or climate change, this is something we as individuals can actually affect.
For all that I harp on about sporting integrity, no-one’s suggesting we scrap the play-offs and give the Provan-Summons to whoever finishes top of the tree. The grand final was, is and should remain the pinnacle. In lieu of a complete home-and-away fixture list, it is in fact quite reasonable to suggest play-offs are a more meritocratic manner of rewarding the best.
But there has to be a line between full-blown riots of joy and meekly accepting the league leaders prize as an afterthought. The celebrations were good and hard over the weekend, and even if they go and blow it in the coming weeks, the players will always be league winners, and the Panthers fans will appreciate their first bit of silverware since 2003.
While we rightfully celebrate the final winners, we should also make space to remember the league winners. It could also make grand final victory extra special. If, having already won the league title, they went down in history as a double-winning side, it would guarantee them folklore in the annals of their club if not competition history.
It’s Castleford, England, 2017. When the Tigers (of the Yorkshire rather than Balmain variety) won the title they lifted their first bit of top-flight silverware in front of a sell-out stadium with fireworks and to the music of We are the Champions. A few weeks later they lost the grand final. Most fans would’ve preferred it to be reversed, but that takes nothing away from their hard work throughout the year, providing memories of cerebral champagne and Freddie Mercury.
This year things are different anyway. The bloody virus means that celebrations are muted, while some sickened Eels fans could contest the legitimacy of the competition over midseason rule changes and the enforced break if nothing but for a laugh. And the players shouldn’t go on the lash four weeks out from the big day like some nervous regretful groom.
However, is it not possible to give more prominence to the league leaders rather than treat the title as an afterthought? The fact the winners are referred to as ‘minors’ is degrading in itself, as if they had won ‘most improved’ in the year 8 reserves. A larger slice of the prize money or even rings like they give for grand final winners would not be out of sorts.
Wayne Bennett once said that his Broncos “never set out … to win the minor premiership,” while Blake Ferguson dismissed the honour with as there is only one thing that counts. The aim at the start of the season is to be victorious at ANZ Stadium come October, but that shouldn’t detract from what should be seen as a brilliant feat.
Why is there not room to celebrate two achievements – obviously one more important than the other – as a celebration of all the work throughout the season, not just come the finals?
There aren’t many trophies going around. Why diminish a hard-earnt, thoroughly deserved accolade?