Lewis Brown's Grand Final odyssey
Warriors centre Lewis Brown was a wide-eyed 16-year-old fan sitting in the stands watching his heroes play in their first ever Grand Final on the first Sunday in October, 2002. Nine years later he returns, but this time on the other side of the fence, hoping to finish the job started all those years ago.
Brown was among 80,130 people who watched the Roosters defeat the Warriors 30-8 and vowed to one day make it back as a player for his beloved New Zealand outfit and win the title on rugby league's biggest day.
It has been a long journey for the Riccarton Knights junior, who has been playing rugby league ever since his legs would carry him.
"I was actually at the ground in 2002," Brown told NRL.com.
"I was at Stadium Australia I think it was called then, when they were playing the Roosters and it was a very proud moment for me because I have played rugby league since I could walk, so to have a New Zealand team there and actually attend the event was amazing.
"I was about 15 or 16 and I was hitting those straps where it was make or break in rugby league, you get picked up pretty young and I probably went the hard way about it."
Brown was in Australia for an Under 16s development tour - the first time he had crossed the Tasman. The chance to play rugby league on foreign soil was a continuation of a dream that Brown admits was weird for a kid from rugby-mad Christchurch.
"We were over touring and we got to watch the preliminary final between the Warriors and Sharks and then went to the Grand Final," he said.
"We toured and played games against a Wests Tigers development squad and played against the Hills District side.
"Even before then I had always been crazy about rugby league, it was always a dream of mine to become a professional rugby league player ever since I could talk. I guess it was a little weird growing up in a rugby dominated town and always dreaming of playing league, but that is the only thing I've ever wanted to do."
Brown's rugby league journey continued when he was picked up by the Roosters, where he played Jersey Flegg under Jim Dymock before being signed by the Wests Tigers and played for Balmain. Being so far from home was a challenge that the 25-year-old now acknowledges as a life-changing experience.
"Not only did that experience help me with footy, it helped me with life in general," he said.
"It made me grow up. I came over to Australia by myself, not being with my family was tough at times and there were times I was really homesick, but I had to tough it out.
"I look back now at those days that were tough and things weren't going to plan and now that I am in a Grand Final week, it just makes it that much sweeter.
"I floated around in a few junior clubs and went back to the Warriors and they have given me an opportunity and to be going to the GF, it is amazing."
Brown returned to New Zealand and his beloved Warriors with no promises, just a chance for a kid with a rugby league dream to prove himself. But not even he could imagine what was to follow.
"I went back to the Warriors with nothing guaranteed, I had to work very hard," he said.
"I owe a lot to the Warriors, to Ivan Cleary, Tony Iro and our trainers. They worked with me hard and helped me develop my skills. I went back as a hooker and to play in the back-row and centres, if you had asked me that three years ago I would have laughed at you.
"They spotted something in me that I didn't realise myself. That is why they are such good coaches and trainers."
On May 3, 2009, Brown made his debut for the Warriors off the bench against St George Illawarra; he has barely missed a game since.
In his 59 games for the club he has quickly become one their most consistent and reliable performers. This year Brown ranks in the Warriors top six for a majority of statistics, including minutes, try-assists, total runs, average runs, total metres and average metres.
On Sunday, Brown's rugby league odyssey will come full circle when he runs out onto ANZ Stadium, nine years after he watched his hero Stacy Jones lead the Warriors out for their first ever Grand Final.
"[It's a] dream come true to be honest," Brown said.
"I remember being a little kid in the backyard and pretending I was playing in the Grand Final for the Warriors and to actually have that come true is amazing."
"Before the Warriors were in the comp I used to pretend I was Alfie Langer playing for the Broncos, but when the Warriors came into the competition I was Stacy Jones.
"Just the thought that I'll be playing on Sunday is a dream come true."