Week one of the NRL finals series was something to savour.
The famous game management of the Storm came to the fore against the Rabbits in a controversial match on Friday night. Saturday saw the Panthers crush the Warriors' dream on the back of a much improved performance and the unfortunate injury to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Late Saturday, many people’s premiership favourites conquered the Sharks at Allianz as the Roosters marched ever closer to a Grand Final in which they seem destined to compete.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Sunday afternoon brought unexpected and absurd drama, as the Dragons found form that hasn’t been since since May. Their resounding victory over the Broncos meant far more than merely advancement to the next phase. For the Red V, it was re-invigorating and restored the belief that has been absent for some months.
Despite the win, the Dragons now face the realities that injuries present. They were well and truly busted by the final siren on Sunday and will need some luck and adjustment if they are to present a real threat to South Sydney on Saturday at ANZ Stadium.
As for Wayne Bennett and his squad, they were humbled, belted really. The Broncos were completely outclassed on the day and eventually embarrassed. If there was one game that appeared to have some vague level of predictability about it, a comfortable Broncos victory over St George-Illawarra appeared to be the one.
Yet the Dragons flicked a switch to which they haven’t had access for some time. As I mingled with NRL fans at a friend’s place while celebrating a family birthday, the throng around the television grew larger as the game unfolded.
Few words were needed, as the club at which Bennett played the role of saviour in 2010, out played, scored and enthused the Queenslanders. It could potentially end his coaching career.
Bennett secured the Dragons' lone premiership when they triumphed in 2010 and will forever be known as the engineer of the master plan that brought success. However, there was no such respect or sentimentality on Sunday as the Dragons, led by a chaotic opening from James Graham, tore the Broncos to shreds in a manner rarely seen, especially on Queensland soil.
It was a frantic weekend of action with the small gaps separating the teams on the ladder reflected in the tense play on the field. It was an astonishing finish to the season with just two points spanning the entire top eight and for and against points proving the determining factor in terms of final positions.
That has indeed been the narrative around the competition for months. On paper, the numbers do support claims of the most even and unpredictable finals series we have seen in years.
However, underneath the mathematics lies a far more esoteric and emotional factor that could well decide the result of the big dance on September 30th.
Part of me thinks we might all be wasting our time debating, hypothesising and betting on the matches when a fairytale finish for Billy Slater looks highly likely.
Friday night was just the start, as the Storm pulled a rabbit from its hat to earn a much needed week off. The 316-game Storm veteran was typically superb. At 35, there appears to have been little reduction in his speed of the mark, nor his ability to break tackles.
Slater’s reading of the game is still sublime and his habit of appearing in the perfect spot at precisely the right moment is legendary and was evident against the Rabbitohs.
Surely this pans out as a dream finish for the Queensland and Australian legend? If anyone deserves it more, I can’t think of them off hand.
The Australian public has seen some emotional and triumphant grand final exits over the years. Mal Meninga lapped up victory in 1994 when the Raiders pounded the Bulldogs and Ray Price was chaired from the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1986 after an international career in two codes that was full of grit and determination.
It is a rare achievement and one that few would begrudge Slater. If you close your eyes you can almost see it; Slater with his family, walking that final victory lap and farewelling a rugby league public that has been privileged to see him play.
Much like his little mate Cameron Smith and long term mentor Craig Bellamy, Slater has had the Midas touch for most of his career.
The Storm looks likely to be involved on the final day, partly due to form and talent, but also thanks to the high probability that Billy Slater will get to do what every player dreams.