Canterbury-Bankstown captain Michael Ennis spent the last two years watching the NRL finals as a spectator and wondered whether his opportunity at a premiership had passed him by.
After a decade of first grade football, Ennis knows better than most how hard it is to make Rugby League’s grandest stage.
The 28-year-old has played in two preliminary finals but has never made the last game of the season. In 2005 he played in St George Illawarra’s preliminary final but fell short against eventual premiers Wests Tigers.
Four years later in 2009, he had another shot at a preliminary final with Canterbury, which they ultimately lost to the Eels.
It was a hard loss to take. The Bulldogs followed it up with two long and frustrating seasons, finishing 13th and 9th.
It was a world away from the heights of playing in front of a record 74,549 crowd against arch-rivals Parramatta at ANZ Stadium with a grand final berth on the line.
It is the reason Ennis is so driven to taste success in 2012.
“It is a wonderful time of year, it is something we all strive to be a part of,” Ennis told NRL.com.
“Not being a part of it for the last two years, you start to get those doubts. You hope you get another opportunity because it is a tough regular season to get here.
“We have to make the most of it.”
The Bulldogs have a totally new look and style about them this season and believe they are much better prepared for finals football this time around.
There are only four survivors from the Bulldogs team beaten by the Eels one game short of the grand final three years ago: Josh Morris, Greg Eastwood, David Stagg and Ennis.
“I think we are much more detailed in how we play our football,” he said.
“No doubt 2009 was a wonderful run, but we finished a bit short. I think a lot of the structures and the processes that we have in place now and the style of football we are playing is more consistent.
“We just need to capitalise on any opportunity and nail our performance on the night.”
Canterbury-Bankstown’s transformation in 2012 has been well documented. The arrival of two-time premiership-winning coach Des Hasler from Manly created a lot of fanfare and attention.
While Hasler typically tried to deflect the crescendo of praise and hype flowing towards his side, it was impossible to miss their success on the field. The Bulldogs surged to the minor premiership off the back of 12 consecutive victories.
It is the kind of form that has fans believing this could be their year.
“There has been a lot of change at our club, especially over the last 12 months,” Ennis said.
“Des and his staff have come in and he has kept the likes of (Jim) Dymock, Tony Grimaldi and Harry Harrison and the like - there is a really good coaching staff for us to draw from.
“They have had the experience at this time of year and we will just be really trying to nail our preparation and make sure we get everything right that we can control to ensure we are ready to go at 7:45 on Friday.”
The blockbuster opening to the NRL finals series against Hasler’s former team is the ultimate yardstick for the boys from Belmore.
There is no denying the gaping gulf between the two teams in terms of finals experience.
While 13 Sea Eagles have tasted grand final glory, nine of the Bulldogs players have never even competed in an NRL finals series.
It is a challenge Ennis is keen to face head-on.
“They are the premiers, they have a wealth of experience and plenty of class throughout their side,” he said.
“It is a great opportunity for us; we have a lot of young guys, a few who haven’t played in finals before and it will give us a really good taste of what semi-finals are about. That is how Manly play and that is what they’ll bring on Friday night.
“Both games have had a lot of hype around them and they have probably lived up to that. Both games have been real tight, tough affairs and I wouldn’t imagine Friday night will be any different at all. Manly are a very physical side and like to play that grinding style and they are very good at it.
“No doubt it will really be a good contest on Friday night and everyone is looking forward to it.”