Livewire fullback Ben Barba had the world at his feet in 2012 after winning the Dally M Medal and leading the Canterbury Bulldogs to the minor premiership – the Bulldogs were on an incredible roll ahead of their grand final showdown against the Melbourne Storm.
There are parallels with Brisbane’s Reece Walsh in 2023 and while Walsh didn’t win the Dally M this year, some could argue that the Broncos have as much momentum as the Doggies did eleven long years ago.
The Bulldogs though had one more hurdle ahead of them.
A Melbourne machine, still licking their wounds after the salary cap scandal of 2010 and being knocked out of the finals in 2011 by the New Zealand Warriors.
In 2023, the Broncos come against a team far more clinical in the back-to-back, reigning premiers the Penrith Panthers.
Melbourne, under Craig Bellamy and headlined by Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, squeezed the life out of the Bulldogs and played Barba out of the match before he had a chance to make a difference.
Walsh may end up the match-winner for the Broncos on Sunday but he doesn’t get to that point if the Broncos don’t find a way to match and dominate the men in black through the middle of the ruck in the opening exchanges.
The Panthers, like Roman legionnaires, have become more than a football team or mere players wearing a jersey.
It symbolises strength.
They may never tell you, but players from rival clubs, left in Penrith’s dust over the last three or four seasons have been beaten at times long before they walk into the unfriendly confines of BlueBet Stadium.
On Sunday, it is the colosseum at Homebush.
Forget Reece Walsh for a minute.
If it is Walsh to claim the Clive Churchill Medal and help lift the trophy alongside Adam Reynolds and Kevin Walters, he will spend the rest of his life thanking Payne Haas, Pat Carrigan and Tom Flegler and the rest of the Broncos pack.
Never in this modern game, where an inch either way can determine a high tackle, a sin bin or a ‘six again’ set, has intimidation become such an artform.
We ask our big men to train all-year round, to be as physically perfect and pay them millions of dollars but then penalise and analyse in a combat sport played at a chronic speed.
The first twenty minutes of Sunday’s grand final will decide the match.
Last weekend at Suncorp Stadium, Carrigan met and buckled the Warriors as they tried to move their way up the field.
Brisbane needs to overcome James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota.
While they are doing that, they also need to stop the other wave that is always coming from the back.
Dylan Edwards and how quickly he covers the turf on a return.
When they move the ball ever so slightly, but with great direction and Stephen Chrichton’s yardage.
If the Broncos don’t set the standard, they will fall into Penrith’s hands.
Rotation of the ball, up and down the field and the Panthers will squeeze the life out of you with every single play and when you think you’re safe, they’ll slash you apart with a sweep.
That’s when Nathan Cleary is at his most dangerous.