On the Road: Kiwis changing face of league
There was a lot of black in Swan Street on Saturday night.
From a distance, you couldn't tell the two crowds apart. Only on closer examination was it apparent that roughly half of them had a sponsor's name on their chests, while the other half sported the logos of dozens of rock bands, the most common of which read "Motley Crue".
Across the road from the second preliminary final, the veteran LA glam metallers were going through their paces at Rod Laver Arena. It's nights like these the Victorian Government savours. It's why they spend taxpayers' money bringing everyone from State of Origin to symphony orchestras to KISS into town. And it's fair to say most of the people at Motley Crue were hardly aware of the Storm – and vice versa.
But sometimes locals become outsiders in their own town. Just ask Cameron Smith how that is; he must have felt like he had hitched a ride on the drum rollercoaster of Motley's Tommy Lee as he tried to hang on in the second half at AAMI Park, while the Aucklanders – cheered on by roughly 50 per cent of the crowd – hammered the Storm line.
The Storm were entitled to think their chance with the ball would come eventually. But it never did, because Ivan Cleary's men showed the patience of Job (and for the job), a trait we first saw evidence of last year in a courageous win at Penrith.
"It was a hard mountain to climb," said centre Lewis Brown, who had a try disallowed shortly before his 78th-minute match-winner. "Luckily we've got a skilful little halfback in Shaun Johnson and he put the ball on my chest, and all I had to do is put the ball down.
"It's a dream come true. Going to the GF! I just can't believe it."
As Brown dived over with two minutes to go, Russell Packer was the most animated on an erupting bench. When you weigh as much as Packer, getting both feet off the ground is a feat in itself. Fans hurdled the fence and posed for photos with players, without security intervening.
Just as James Maloney, Krisnan Inu, Feleti Mateo and the rest had crossed the Tasman to be part of the Warriors, these Kiwi expats had been rewarded for crossing the ditch in another direction by witnessing a piece of New Zealand sporting history from an almost intimate distance.
And while Manly were a picture of understatement following their 26-14 win over a Darren Lockyer-less Brisbane, the Warriors boys could see no point in restraint. They finished sixth and had lost their first final 40-10, after all.
"My way of looking at it is: if you're not enjoying yourself, you're wasting your time," said five-eighth Maloney. "We'll enjoy the week, make sure everything we do preparation-wise is spot on. We'll ride this emotion but we sure-as-hell hope we're still feeling this way on Sunday night."
One side always adopts the "we're just here for the ride" role in grand final week. They usually declare themselves underdogs as soon as possible, too. "[Manly have] been outstanding all year ... obviously they'll be pretty heavy favourites next week," said Cleary within minutes of fulltime.
"Everyone plays to be in grand finals. It's only the second time for me in 20 years so I'll certainly look forward to the week."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key had called Warriors patron Peter Leitch on Saturday morning and apologised for the fact he was not in Melbourne. "He's definitely coming to the grand final," the Mad Butcher said.
If that's not a challenge for Julia Gillard to show up for a rugby league game, nothing is.
And so to grand final week, to the stories of past successes and failures, fallen comrades, good luck and bad, tradition and myth. Second rower Jacob Lillyman recalled: "I was involved in the Cowboys' run to the grand final in 2005 but I didn't play in it. It might be a cliché but it's a dream come true."
The Warriors can be excused a few clichés. After being resuscitated from the point of oblivion twice since their 1995 inception, they stand on the precipice of greatness with teams in all three grand finals at ANZ Stadium this Sunday.
New Zealand already holds the World Cup and the Four Nations Trophy and its captain has the current Golden Boot in his trophy cabinet. An upset win over Manly for the country's club flagship and there will be no more arguments about where the heart of rugby league is.
To quote the Crue, New Zealand will be the game's undisputed "Home Sweet Home".