Early Sunday afternoon at Suncorp Stadium. The Penrith Panthers and the New Zealand Warriors.
A dry, fast track beckons as the players jog out to a sunny, 20 degrees and the cheers of delighted Rugby League fans.
Within the next two hours, those lucky patrons are transported to another world, the fantastical world of the greatest sport in the world. The narratives swirl, heady and delightful.
The Panthers, battle-hardened and searching for two points to answer the Melbourne Storm’s victory from the night before.
Five players are backing up from Origin, while their do-no-wrong halves partnership of Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary quietly recover on the sidelines.
The New Zealand Warriors, who have given so much for the NRL, are always a fan favourite.
If anybody can spring an upset against the weakened competition favourites, it might just be the Warriors and their young-gun fullback in Reece Walsh – the most beautiful man in rugby league.
For a few minutes, magic is in the air, as both teams remain equal. It is nil-all and the worries of our daily lives slip away, like a quickly receding dream.
Warriors and her fans believe that, maybe today, the day is not yet written. But it is the warriors blink first.
The temporarily-returning Chad Townsend hoofing a kick into the outstretched arms of the towering Viliame Kikau.
Charged down and recollected, Kikau scores and breaks the coconut, drinking the Steeden milk. Another $5000 to Mose Masoe’s foundation.
Could today be just another day? The race already run? The fate pre-determined? This is why we love the underdog, the surprise twist. Are our lives also fated?
The Panthers are the champions in waiting and the Warriors expected to lose. In many ways, rugby league is the metaphor for our lives and the struggle of the working class.
Many sports are, but none are so tied to the average man or woman.
Perhaps in that spirit then, the Warriors were able to strike back, with the help of some new recruits. Some new talent woven through their fabric.
It would be the maligned Matthew Lodge, unwanted by the Broncos who resurrected him – both in career and in a more true sense.
Now running out for New Zealand, he powered through the middle in a way that only one with something to prove can.
A front-row forward making distance in open space and providing the pass to his hooker Egan that would see the Warriors draw level with the Panthers. There is cause to hope.
And cause to despair. With the Panthers continuing to make ground in every set, the balance of attrition falling Penrith’s way, the Warriors would lose two of their leaders.
Tohu Harris, a late inclusion, would succumb to his injury and leave the field with barely ten minutes gone.
Five minutes later and it was their selfless star Roger Tuivasa-Scheck, who has insisted on giving his fullback position to Reece Walsh, falling to the ground, rendered unconscious by the hip of Matt Burton.
Two men down and fifteen minutes gone, the Warriors were leading by two points. A penalty would see them re-gain position 40 out.
Some slick passing and a deft kick from Chad Townsend resulted in a forced line drop-out.
Unbelievably, the Warriors would have a chance to further extend their lead. Then Wayde Egan, cursing, also left the field.
Not 20 minutes gone and New Zealand were down to 14 men. Then the most unbelievable thing happened.
A set spurred by a Matt Lodge offload would Reece Walsh deliver a fast and short ball to Rocco Berry five metres from the try-line.
Up against the Premiership heavyweights and without three of their starting squad, the Warriors were now up 10 points to 4.
On paper, the Warriors would be no chance. The cliche was playing out. The Warriors were lifting.
Addin Fonua-Blake, Matt Lodge, Chad Townsend, Reece Walsh and Jazz Tevaga were playing as if everything depended on it. Arguably, it does.
A lonely Leeson Ah Mau cut a solitary figure on the sideline.
The Warriors would have been even further ahead, had Townsend’s pass to a barn-storming Josh Curran not been called fractionally forward.
The lawnmower celebration called back and the game remained in the balance.
Shortly thereafter, the backing-up Brian To’o dived over in the opposite corner and a sideline conversion from Stephen Crichton meant the scores were now even at 10 – 10.
There’s a narrative there for Panthers fans too it surely interests few. The Empire is crushing the Rebels valiant effort. Hold for applause.
Repeat sets for the Panthers, the inevitable was coming.
In the end, a courageous Reece Walsh was unable to stop the behemoth in a 1-on-1 tackle with Kikau who planted the ball for his second try. That’s the way life is.
That’s the way it goes but, sometimes, it goes the other way too.
The Warriors would hold on for the rest of the half, but an ominous shot of Rocco Berry with an iced hamstring caught the attention of the commentators.
The Warriors were down to their final 13 players. Every single one would have to play out the rest of the game.
The second half would begin with a spirited display from the Warriors. The strategy was obvious. Go hard and go early.
Advice that many could take, in fact. Go hard, go early and get ahead.
An early penalty got New Zealand in Penrith’s defensive zone and subsequent set restarts saw a chunk of possession for the men from across the Pacific.
It would all be for nought, as ill discipline from New Zealand gave Penrith plenty of opportunity to stamp their authority on the game.
The energy would begin to sap, with no help to come. Guts only goes so far. Every metre gained for the Warriors must have felt like every metre at Verdun (I don’t know if Verdun was that kind of battle).
It was especially cruel then, when each metre was wiped away in an instant, Dylan Edwards swerving through a broken line of Warriors, unable to give chase.
After an 80 metre break, the play was stopped. A quick spread to the right though and the Panthers were leading 20 – 10 through the country Rugby League hero Charlie Staines.
As I said, guts only go so far.
Not long after and Jazz Tevaga was slammed heavily, his head bouncing on the turf. The ball was dropped. Addin Fonua-Blake (I suppose the last remaining captain) appealed to the ref, “Please sir, we’ve got no one on the bench, give us one call.”
The video ref, with a hint of sadness, announced: “challenge unsuccessful.” Just one of those days.
A patient Panthers would need only wait out the rest of the game. As the Warriors ran themselves ragged, trying desperately to jag a try and swing the game.
To change their fate. Their fate which would shortly see Liam Martin earn his deserved try for the Panthers. 26 – 10 and there was nowhere left to go for the Warriors, but a few more gears yet for Penrith.
Staines would join Kikau on two tries after a simple left-to-right spread, helped in part by Isaah Yeo, who had an inspirational game after 69 minutes in State of Origin only days before.
At this point it seemed, again, foretold that Penrith would run away with the game.
With 15 minutes left and the defence starting to crumble, one begins to imagine a 40 or 50 point drubbing.
True to form, the Warriors would hold their line and, indeed, push forward when their time came, nabbing a late try to Walsh.
Wayde Egan even looked tempted to come back on, throwing painful passes and jogging on the sideline before, eventually admitting defeat.
That small look at Egan represents the wider Warriors story. Down by 20, with no bench and no hope of a comeback, Egan wanted to re-enter the fray.
Why, we must ask. Why would anybody willingly return when they have every excuse not to?
That was the story of the Warriors on Sunday afternoon. They were brave against the indomitable Panthers and continue to show why they are every Australian’s second team.
While it could have been one of the greatest games of all time if fate were balanced otherwise today.
But their effort has kept the flickering flame alive and we can believe in magic again, next weekend. Or even right now.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was pleased to get the victory even though the performance was not perfect.
“To be able to win when you’re not playing that well, that’s encouraging,” Cleary said.
“The Storm are certainly hitting some big highs at the moment.
“At least we’ve come through that in decent shape.”
For Warriors coach Nathan Brown, even though his side lost, he praised their valiant efforts against a heavyweight.
“I’m really happy with the boys,” Brown said.
I wouldn’t say it’s our best performance this year … but playing with group commitment is more beneficial than being technically sound with everything.”
Penrith Panthers 30 (Kikau 2, Stains 2, To’o, Martin) def New Zealand Warriors 16 (Egan, Berry, Walsh)
NRL News Player of the Match
3 Points – Isaah Yeo (PEN)
2 Points – Addin Fonua Blake (WAR)
1 Point – Matthew Lodge (WAR)