A coaching rivalry that began 27 years ago will resume at the Sydney Football Stadium this Sunday when Tim Sheens' Wests Tigers square off with Brian Smith's Sydney Roosters.
Sheens' and Smith's teams last clashed in that epic qualifying final last season, won in the most dramatic of circumstances by the Roosters after Shaun Kenny-Dowall's intercept try in golden point extra-time.
The win to Smith's Roosters brought the head-to-head tally between the two veteran coaches to 18 wins apiece (plus one draw) from 37 games.
The game's two longest-serving off-field generals have been going at it since April 4, 1984. That was the date when their teams first clashed – when Sheens was a first-season coach at Penrith and 30-year-old Smith was a rookie in charge of his first team at Illawarra.
The premiership that year operated far more modestly than today's multi-million dollar entity. It was almost a decade before the arrival of pay television, there was no private ownership and the furthest away trip was a couple of hours down the Hume Highway at Canberra.
Smith's Illawarra Steelers chalked up their second win of the season when they met Sheens' Panthers in a premiership clash on a Wednesday night at Wollongong Showground.
The teams were:
ILLAWARRA: John Sparks; Owen Saunders, Kim Patrick, Brian Hetherington, Stan Browne; Wayne McPherson, Kevin Kelly; Robert Thompson, Terry Westblade, Rod Reddy, Rod Henniker, Michael Bolt (c), Peter Smith. Replacements: Geoff Selby, Scott Greenland
PENRITH: Mark Levy; Brett Lobb, Ross Gigg, Ken Wolffe, Brad Izzard; Greg Alexander, Michael Davis; Craig Connor, Matt Goodwin, Warren Fenton, Joe Vitanza, Royce Simmons (c), Les White. Replacements: Darryl Griffen, Peter Burgmann.
The Steelers prevailed 10-6 in a dour defensive contest and at fulltime both coaches offered honest appraisals to reporters. Smith said: "The game could have been lost during that period when Penrith bombarded our line but every player gave his best in a sustained defensive display." Sheens had no doubt where the game was lost. "We were not organised and still on a high after the win against Eastern Suburbs, we took the Steelers lightly and paid the price."
Over the next three decades, the rookie coaches have developed into leaders in their field. Sheens has plied his trade at Penrith, Canberra (winning three premierships), North Queensland and Wests Tigers (winning a fourth title in 2005) while Smith has been at the helm of the Steelers, St George, Parramatta, Newcastle and Sydney Roosters.
Between them they have helped usher into the top grade almost 350 rookie players, many of whom have gone onto State of Origin and Test representation. Sheens has promoted almost 200 rookies into first grade since 1984, including: Greg Alexander, Benji Marshall, Ricky Stuart, Ben Kennedy, Robbie Farah, Bradley Clyde, Scott Prince, Matt Bowen, Mark Geyer, Ruben Wiki, Brett Mullins, John Cartwright, David Furner and Jason Croker.
Smith's list numbers almost 140 and includes: Jarryd Hayne, Gorden Tallis, Nathan Hindmarsh, Jamie Lyon, Eric Grothe jnr, Anthony Mundine, Nathan Cayless, Andrew Ryan, Jason Stevens, Lance Thompson, Luke Burt and Nathan Brown.
This weekend Sheens will oversee the debut of another likely youngster in 18-year-old halfback Jacob Miller. Back in 1984 he watched 19-year-old Greg Alexander step into first grade for the first time against Manly and two years later the young halfback prodigy wore the green and gold of Australia on a Kangaroo tour.
Sheens will chalk up an incredible milestone of his own in this match. It is his 800th game as a player or coach – a milestone that no other individual has approached in the 103-year history of the game in Australia.
His tally includes 177 games as a front-rower with Penrith and a gargantuan 623 games as a top grade coach.
Smith's coaching tally reaches 557 this week and neither he nor Sheens is showing any sign of slowing down.
When fulltime sounds on Sunday there is likely to be a respectful acknowledgement and a friendly handshake before two of the game's most professional coaches get back to business.