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Where reporters fear to tread ... but do so anyway

Take a moment before you enter the dressing room of a team that has just lost a grand final.

Like those internet photos of a hotel room you booked for a getaway, often you're not exactly sure of what you'll find.

Will what you expect eventuate, or will you be taken aback?

And what should a journalist expect to find after an entire NRL season has come to a shuddering stop?

Obviously, you're prepared for a bunch of very disappointed players.

But at times the depth of the devastation does strike a cord inside your own being.

Flashback to the Cowboys in 2005.

The Wests Tigers were given an easy passage to the line early in the game when centre Paul Bowman threw a speculative pass near his own line, and Bryce Gibbs pounced to score.

The Tigers eventually raced away to a five-tries-to-two victory (30-16) but Bowman – a State of Origin player – was inconsolable after the game.

Full Match Replay: Wests Tigers v Cowboys - Grand Final, 2005

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When this reporter approached him in the ANZ Stadium sheds, he was leaning shoulder-first against the cement wall drawing circles with his index finger.

He asked for a couple of minutes to compose himself and then graciously answered a few questions – still staring at the wall occasionally as if he hoped it would absorb him and block out the next few weeks.

Then the sight of Ryan Hoffman tearing up during our interview in the Melbourne sheds in 2006.

The Broncos and Storm were level pegging (8-8) with 20 minutes remaining before a Corey Parker penalty goal, Brent Tate try and Darren Lockyer field goal delivered a 15-8 win to Brisbane.

Melbourne forward Ryan Hoffman.
Melbourne forward Ryan Hoffman. ©Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos

It was Hoffman's first grand final and he feared it may be his last.

Luckily I had my Kleenex re-sealable pack of tissues in my bag. Hoffman used two of them.

But to his credit – and Bowman too – they had the guts and professionalism to answer a few questions, when a reporter and her tape recorder is probably the last thing they wanted to see at that time.

You would hear more noise at Rookwood in Sydney – the world's largest remaining operating cemetery – than you hear in a loser's dressing room on grand final night.

Unless that is, you have Justin Hodges in your midst.

Unlike Shane Webcke in 2006, Hodges didn't get the fairy tale premiership ring in his final game for the Broncos in 2015.

A heart-breaking golden-point 17-16 loss to the Cowboys sounds like the recipe for deathly silence in the Broncos sheds.

Broncos v Cowboys - Grand Final, 2015

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But skipper Hodges lightened the mood by moving from player to player, with a beer in hand, to share a story, a laugh, a memory.

He might have been the only Bronco with a smile on his face that night but he dispensed hugs and alcohol with abandon to create an almost party-like atmosphere.

Losing by a try, a conversion, a field goal, is one kind of heartache.

Then there's the 40-0 drubbing a Cameron Smith-less Storm received at the hands of Manly in 2008.

Lucky Hoffman wasn't in the side that night through injury. But Anthony Quinn and Steve Turner were. Both were pure class in answering questions – albeit in whispered tones because the noise level in the sheds that night was never higher than 10 decibels.

Quinn also kindly removed a wad of strapping tape that had attached itself to my jeans, trailing around behind me as I wandered through the sheds and out the exit door. 

He had just suffered a humiliating loss but still saved me from embarrassment.

Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith after the 2018 grand final.
Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith after the 2018 grand final. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

And it's not just the players who feel like their hearts have been ripped out.

Craig Bellamy's birthday is October 3 so often falls right around grand final time.

He has had to endure a loss (2006 and 2016) on the eve of his birthday, which doesn't make for a happy celebration.

"Don't think I'll be raising a glass tomorrow," Bellamy told me after the October 2 loss to Cronulla.

Don't feel too sorry for him. He's won four grand finals from eight played in the past 12 years. None have fallen on October 3.

For my former employers, The Australian, I was the ghost-writer for Ricky Stuart's weekly column in the newspaper.

His Roosters had won the 2002 decider against the Warriors and were hot favourite to so against John Lang's Penrith side in 2003.

It was the game Scott Sattler made his memorable tackle on Roosters winger Todd Byrne. That seemed to snuff out the fight in the Roosters – the sight of Stuart and assistant coach John Cartwright slumped in chairs in the sheds with an esky between them, said it all.

Stuart invited me to sit and have a drink, or two, before we did his column. I don't like beer but I did that night.

Trent Robinson and Ricky Stuart after the 2019 grand final.
Trent Robinson and Ricky Stuart after the 2019 grand final. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

We did the column but it was only after the interview that Stuart revealed some of the real despair of the loss. He felt like he'd failed his players.

How wrong he was – the Roosters made the 2004 final - but how impossible it is to make anyone in a loser's dressing room feel better.

Stuart said so himself 16 years later, or last Sunday night in fact, after the Raiders lost 14-8 to the Roosters.

"I'm not a miracle worker mate. You can't say anything to lift people's spirits after a grand final defeat."

 

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