Peter Sterling: Do you believe in fairy tales?
Retiring Gold Coast five-eighth Mat Rogers declared last week that he didn’t believe in fairy tales. Well at least not those mentioned in sporting terms.<br><br>With the Titans being knocked out agonizingly close to a grand final appearance - which would have also served as a personal 200th first grade farewell match - I guess his sentiment was justified.<br><br>This week, however, there are any number of players who may beg to differ as they prepare for their unlikeliest of appearances in our biggest game of the year.<br><br>As usual there are many who I’m sure deep down may have never thought that such an opportunity would come their way.<br><br>Last week I mentioned the adversity that Todd Carney has overcome to again become an NRL player.<br><br>All his own fault, of course, which is something that he readily admits. Thankfully he has also understood that despite all the help he has received from many different people, in the end the only person who could make the necessary changes was himself.<br><br>The same also applied to teammate Jake Friend who, nine months ago, was making sandwiches for a living in a Surry Hills cafe. That was a result of a string of alcohol-related indiscretions which led to his contract with the Roosters being terminated at the end of last year.<br><br>Again his fault, but fortunately there were enough who saw the good in him to help him on the right track and the tri-colours took him back in May.<br><br>When it comes to footballing ability you can see why they were prepared to give the young rake one more chance.<br><br>Through the second half of the season Friend has been an unsung hero, whether starting the game or coming off the bench.<br><br>Defying the trend of former halves moving to dummy-half, Jake is an old-school hooker who goes about his job in solid and reliable fashion. His service is efficient, defence very strong and he is astute in picking the time to dart in the ruck area.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&roundid=905&fixtureid=50020102702&videoquality=1&type=try&period=2&time=2211"><b>CLICK HERE to see Friend create the try which saved the Roosters' season against the Tigers.</b></a><br><br>When Jason Ryles and Mark Gasnier opted to head overseas I’m sure they also didn’t envisage returning to an NRL grand final. <br><br>Ironically Ryles will take on the club where he spent nine seasons chasing premiership glory and was the target of an inordinate amount of criticism over much of that time. <br><br>He decided to head to Catalans in the English Super League for 2009 but was surprisingly enticed back to Australia when Brian Smith took over the reins at the cellar dwellers.<br><br>The likeable prop has had a great year and been a professional influence on the many young forwards in the squad. <br><br>There has been a real maturity about his displays which have featured high work rates and picking up plenty of metres. If there was a viable criticism of his game in the past it was that he looked to push the pass too often and gave away silly penalties. He’s addressed both of those areas and is definitely much more selective when off-loading.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&roundid=850&fixtureid=50020101405&videoquality=1&type=try&period=1&time=1032"><b>CLICK HERE to see Ryles' clever ball work at the line to create a try for Mose Masoe.</b></a><br><br>Mark Gasnier’s career mirrored that of Ryles in that he was with St George Illawarra for the same period before deciding to head to rugby union.<br><br>I think all of us rugby league fans hoped that one day he would again grace our code and were delighted that it was sooner than later.<br><br>He’s had just the 11 games back and I think it’s fair to say that he’s had a minimum of opportunities and that his very best will be on the back of another off-season.<br><br>Still he’s a big game player and that in itself makes him a real threat on Sunday.<br><br>The Dragons have been looking to send more football to their right and his direction but when you have scored twice as many tries down the left you don’t alter what is being so successful.<br><br>One thing that Mark does provide is the prospect of scoring from long range. He’s crossed for a couple of tries already from his own side of half-way with his effort against Manly in their opening final a reminder of just what he is capable of producing.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&roundid=905&fixtureid=50020102704&videoquality=1&type=linebreak&period=2&time=2101"><b>CLICK HERE to see Gasnier back to his old ways against Manly in the first week of the finals.</b></a><br><br>Just starting out on his first grade journey is Joseph Leilua who, 12 months ago, was playing schoolboy football.<br><br>At just 18 years of age he is the youngest facing the pressure cooker of this weekend.<br><br>As a result he will attract attention especially with the Titans' only try last weekend scored in behind his flank.<br><br>Despite his youth he is an obvious talent and the fact that he has played some football in the back-row indicates that physically he is up to the task.<br><br>He showed plenty of power and awareness to bullock his way through three Brisbane defenders to score in round 20.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&roundid=856&fixtureid=50020102008&videoquality=1&type=try&period=2&time=195"><b>CLICK HERE to see Leilua show strength beyond his years to score against the Broncos.</b></a><br><br>That followed a double the previous week against the Bulldogs which featured another strong effort to latch onto a Mitchell Pearce bomb.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&roundid=855&fixtureid=50020101907&videoquality=1&type=try&period=1&time=229"><b>CLICK HERE to see Leilua's skills under the high ball.</b></a><br><br>Speaking of strong, Anthony Minichiello is back to his best after a wretched couple of years in which back and neck problems could easily have forced him into retirement. In fact, as he got closer to 30 that would have been an understandable decision.<br><br>Instead, he never lost the desire and worked incredibly hard to be where he is today. During that rehabilitation the whole aim is to get back on the paddock consistently, you never entertain thoughts of a grand final appearance.<br><br>He looked somewhat out of place on the wing earlier in the season but a move back to his favoured full-back position has paid dividends and was another important piece in finding the best Roosters' configuration.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&roundid=906&fixtureid=50020102802&videoquality=1&type=try&period=2&time=1783"><b>CLICK HERE to see Mini's ability to chime into the backline and find open spaces.</b></a><br><br>“The Count” is one of the few players who know what to expect in the lead-up to this Sunday evening. It is often referred to as one of the best weeks in a player’s life and rightly so.<br><br>The range of emotions are remarkable with nerves, excitement and expectation just a few high on the list. There is also the knowledge that you are about to be involved in something special and that all the blood, sweat and tears and the sacrifices made are justified.<br><br>Mostly it is about the team and the camaraderie and trust that must have existed to have made the dream become a reality. <br><br>The losing side will be justifiably devastated and it takes time to get over the agony of that defeat. However it is also the greatest in learning experiences because there is no stronger reinforcement for a player in knowing that they never want to feel that way again.<br><br>In time, despite the loss, every player will look back and realise that whilst they didn’t achieve the ultimate success it was still an incredible journey and one that they wouldn’t have missed for the world. <br><br>The great Andrew Ettingshausen played 328 games for Cronulla and never got to play in a unified competition grand final.<br><br>This weekend Joseph Leilua will play his 16th game in the top grade.<br><br>Surely there’s a hint of fairy tale about that. <br>