Jamie Lyon leads Manly out onto the field for their last grand final victory in 2011. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
The grand final is here. We made it! Where did the last seven months go? We started with 16 teams at the beginning of 2013, an ASADA investigation that broke 24 hours before the season kicked off, and one superstar returning to the game he abandoned years before. SBW – OMG!
After a season strewn with bone-jarring hits, impossible acrobatic lunges over the line and some controversial sucker-punches we've arrived at the finish line, with the final two teams receiving the privilege of playing in the premiership round of the NRL. Manly-Warringah versus the Sydney Roosters. The Silvertails taking on the latte-sippers. It's a promoter's dream to have the minor premiers and the ultra-consistent premiership team of recent times featuring on Grand Final Day.
We got a sneak peek in the first qualifying final with the Roosters scraping home 4-0 the last time these two sides met. The Bondi boys could hardly be cock-a-hoop about that but it's Manly who go into this year's decider as the underdogs.
Clever recruiting has transformed the Roosters; think the indestructible Sonny Bill Williams, cheeky but clever five-eighth James Maloney and lightening quick speedster Michael Jennings. All have been essential to the Roosters' red hot form in 2013. The eastern suburbs set also signed up a "no-name" rookie coach who has been deemed the best in the NRL this season, Trent Robinson. But just like the Dally M curse, maybe it's an honour Robinson could do without; four of the past eight Coach of the Year winners are now in the first-grade coaching wilderness: Tim Sheens (2005), Neil Henry (2008), Kevin Moore (2009) and Brian Smith (2010).
The Roosters also turned their fortunes around from an unlucky and uninspiring 13th position last year to winning their first minor premiership since 2004 and boasting the best attacking and defensive statistics in the competition. Along the way they've set a new record to keep half a dozen sides to a clean sheet, including their next opponents the Sea Eagles. But let's not forget the Bondi boys have lost more grand finals than any other team in rugby league history, and their captain Anthony Minichiello could soon have the unenviable stigma of having lost five heartbreaking deciders. Ouch.
On the other side of the old coat-hanger, Manly have been the most consistent finals performers in recent years, appearing in four grand finals since 2007 and winning the last two deciders they've been in. Eleven players are backing up from their most recent premiership in 2011. That's experience not even the Roosters can buy.
Jamie Lyon is the Sea Eagles' frontman in more ways than one. The captain starred in the club's last two season finales, has raised the bat for more than 1000 points for the Sea Eagles, and loves nothing more than getting the better of his flashy opposite Michael Jennings. The only thing Lyon loves more than a premiership is pig-hunting and you can bet he'll have the cross-hair on a few Roosters at ANZ Stadium.
Then there's Geoff Toovey, the man who has provided continual comedic highlights from the coaching box. When it's not boiling, Tooves' blood flows coarsely with the maroon of Manly-Warringah. You can't deny the passion he has for the Brookvale boys and this season he's been everyone's "best on ground" in the post-match press conferences. He might be a little lighter in the hip pocket, but Geoff says what he thinks and you can't blame him for that. He also has the chance to join an elite group of men who have captained and coached the same team to a premiership.
So where will you be on grand final day? At home, sitting in pole position on the lounge yelling at the TV? At a barbeque lamenting why Jamie Lyon won't play for the Kangaroos at the upcoming World Cup? Or will you be joining 80,000+ maniacs at the game, soaking up rugby league at its very best?
Whereever you end up, just remember it's a game of two halves, you have to play the full 80 minutes and at the end of the day, rugby league is the winner.