It's not long after 7.30am on Grand Final day and the news the rugby league world has been waiting for is finally confirmed. A 'game for the ages' is declared to be happening at Suncorp Stadium. All the talk of postponements and relocations is rendered immaterial. Perhaps now we can turn our attention to the footy.
The skies are blue and temperatures are tipping 30 degrees when the gates at the ground open at 12pm. Already a steady stream of cardinal, myrtle, jet black, pink and chocolate brown clad fans are making the slightly sweaty trek around the famous rectangular stadium, searching for their entry points. Some of the younger and less heat oppressed are trying their hands at ball passing promotions at the northern end of the ground. Others pose for the obligatory selfie with the King Wally statue.
Some grab themselves some highly fashionable retro merchandise. Others still have decided it's 5pm somewhere in the world and high time for a beer. While a small smattering of spectators have joined the queue for one of the two pop-up vaccination clinics at the ground.
"Didn't think we'd be here," says Rod, a Panthers tragic wearing a replica of the 1991 Grand Final winning jersey. He and his family have made the trip down from Townsville for the occasion, and were prepared to turn back at any moment.
"You just never know these days, do you?"
The level 2 restrictions imposed earlier in the week mean 13,000 former ticket holders are watching the action elsewhere. Those here are understandably excited, and the atmosphere suggests an eagerness to put the uncertainty of the week behind them.
For working media it's a long haul to collect accreditation at the northern end, before circumnavigating the ground and entering via the official vehicle entry in the Southwestern corner. A carefully guided walk through the ground's 'dirty zone' follows, heading past the closely guarded players entrance; which along with the field itself constitutes the 'clean zone.'
The first of two Intrust Super Cup preliminary finals gets underway at 12.15pm. Wynnum Manly Seagulls run out 40-18 winners over the Tweed Seagulls, in a match billed as a 'Flockbuster,' due to the teams shared emblems. Panthers and Rabbitohs flags are already waving in the grandstands, more than four hours out from kickoff. A young fan is wearing a Wynnum Manly jersey while waving a 'King Cleary' banner. Leaving no illusions as to his choice for the Clive Churchill medal.
Norths Devils and Burleigh Bears are the next to take the field at 3.45pm. Mercifully, it's a bit cooler than it was for the 34 poor souls who duked it out in the first curtain raiser. Former Titans halfback Tyrone Roberts leads the Devils to a 34-16 victory. Both preliminary finals provide a wonderful endorsement for the quality of the Queensland competition; the football is fast and tough, while the four teams are littered with recognisable names.
Speaking of recognisable names, Sam Thaiday and Scott Sattler are having a bit of a catch-up in the press box, after Sattler's ISC broadcasting commitments are finished. The 2003 Panthers Grand Final winner cannot see a way through for the Rabbitohs tonight, while Sam says with some experience to not discount the 'Wayne factor.' Even the experts are struggling to pick this one.
A roll call of more contemporary legends enter proceedings when the retiring class of 2021 is honoured. Michael Morgan, Josh Morris, Blake Feguson, Boyd Cordner and Cameron Smith are among the more than 5,000 games of experience recognised for departing the game in 2021. They're appropriately honoured with rousing receptions by the rugby league faithful in Brisbane.
By 5.30pm local time the ground is close to being as full as it's going to get, and the atmosphere is sizzling. Seats at semi-regular intervals around the ground remain empty, but only by government order. The pre-match entertainment is all Brisbane. Local songstress Kate Miller-Heidke leads an energetic show alongside founding Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss, a 40-piece orchestra and world famous didgeridoo artist William Barton. Beats the heck out of that time Billy Idol rode around ANZ Stadium on a hovercraft. There's smoke and fireworks. It's spine tingling stuff. Even more spine tingling is the reaction to Adam Reynolds and Nathan Cleary appearing in the big screen for the coin toss. Souths take it, that's one for the faithful who celebrate it like it's one hand on the trophy.
'Glory glory' blasts out around the ground as Reynolds reappears soon after, this time with 16 team mates in his wake. Souths are out there and it's difficult not to get caught up in the sentiment. The Panthers follow and the backing track seems even louder. 'Hells Bells' by ACDC almost ricochets off the goalposts at either end. The roar is almost ridiculous. It's a cliche, but rugby league is already the winner here.
Miller-Heidke returns to deliver the national anthem, and it's game on.
Big game players have made an art form of describing high stakes footy games as 'total blurs,' and it's about time sports scribes applied that description to their coverage. It's frenetic stuff early on.
The referee is quickly in the crosshairs of the fans sitting in row 22, section 340. They're the only ones within earshot anyway, and a quick head turn reveals they are a group comprising jerseys from both teams. No doubt not the only ones among the 39,322 at Suncorp Stadium zero'ing in on Gerrard Sutton.
A successful early captain's challenge has deprived the Rabbitohs of field position to work with. Dane Gagai leaves the field after a head knock soon after. A sustained period of Panthers pressure ensues, only to be met by resilient defence from the Rabbitohs. It might not be his best work early, but Reynolds is kicking in general play.
Unfortunately for Souths, Cleary is kicking a lot better and the Panthers are warming into their work. A big overlap opens up and Burton dives over in the 17th minute. Cleary converts, it's 6-0, and all of a sudden that apparently mighty coin toss roar is long forgotten. "Come on ref, jeeeeez," comes the shriek from behind. That's one of the Rabbitohs supporters in the group. She's quickly reminded that the Panthers have been the better side in the opening exchanges.
Despite the score line and momentum, the Rabbitohs have 24 to 6 tackle breaks after 25 minutes. They have some attacking football, but aren't really troubling the Panthers defence. Gagai is back and executes a try-saver on Cleary. The sort of play you usually see him produce in maroon.
In the 21st minute Cody Walker slices through out of nowhere. Going himself, fending off Cleary and going over under the posts. A Walker special, only this time on the biggest of stages. "What is wrong with this ref, seriously?" This time the enquiry from behind comes from a Panthers fan, clearly not chuffed with the try. 6-6.
Jair Arrow's crowding penalty gives Cleary an easy two points. The Panthers have a 2-point lead to show for a pretty dominant first half. Their line speed has been superior to that shown by the Rabbitohs, who are playing an uncharacteristic amount of one-out footy. Penrith seem to be finding the extra wind many thought would elude them, 60% possession is definitely helping.
Halftime comes and Wayne Bennett is undoubtedly calling for some more energy and a focus on the basics in the dressing rooms. Across the hall, Ivan Cleary is likely demanding more of the same from his side. Meantime, local DJ's Timmy Trumpet and the Stafford Brothers are delighting the darkened stadium with a remixed rendition of Horses by Darryl Braithwaite. The smart phone lights are out across the ground.
Game on again and Souths have back to back set restarts. Kurt Capewell is ruled to have obstructed Cameron Murray, and soon it's 8-8.
Souths are staying in it, but Cleary's kicking game is slowly killing them. His bombs are routinely putting them on the back foot and the repeat sets are flowing, even though young Blake Taaffe is handling the assignment well enough. Viliame Kikau crashes over but is denied, and a further period of sustained pressure has passed without more points.
"This is ******* ref!" comes the analysis from behind.
Just over 25 minutes to play and the Panthers are attacking again. Back-to-back sets go their way. But they cannot get there. Mistakes are threatening to dethrone them before they're crowned.
With 17 to go Matt Burton takes Jaxson Paulo over the sideline, and the Panthers have another set beginning 10 metres out. Tyrone May drops it cold. The Panthers jerseys behind can't even find fault with the ref on this one.
A shout goes out for the fans of both teams to "make some noise." They oblige in ear splitting fashion.
Then, a Cody Walker pass finds Stephen Crichton. Yet another try assist from Walker, only not the way he would like it to play out. Crichton sprints clear and Suncorp Stadium is basically raised from its foundations. The Rabbitohs, and their fans, are devastated. All of that defence, and they're behind 14-8.
They're not done yet, as far as Tom Burgess is concerned. The hulking Brit leads a kick chase and catches Cleary. It's a morale boosting play, and soon Walker is cutting out Cameron Murray to find Alex Johnstone in the corner. It's 14-12 and Reynolds steps up for what could be the defining kick of his Rabbitohs career. He misses, and the pain resonates across the entire ground. Surely even Penrith fans could see the fairytale potential there. There's just over 4 minutes left and even Wayne Bennett must be concerned. How many bullets does his side have left?
Clearly a few, because Murray is soon in the clear in the midfield. Walker tries to unleash Johnstone again, but this time the ball goes to ground.
A 2-point field goal attempt is Reynolds final attacking play in his beloved cardinal and myrtle. It falls well short, and all the Panthers need to do is hold on to the ball.
The siren sounds. The flamethrowers erupt. The Panthers bench charge onto the field, no chance of social distancing here. Wayne Bennett consoles a heartbroken Damien Cook, before going on to do the same for all his players and staff- from the trainers to the bus driver. The class of the master coach is on display, after losing what must surely be his final crack at a title, and it's more important than even that he holds it all together at this moment.
"I have a number of options on the table, but I dont know what I'm going to do yet," he tells the eager press pack soon after.
"Today is not a good day, tomorrow won't be a good day either. After that, I'll sit down and have a think about it."
Not the story for today, and fair enough. Panthers fans are still in the stands, sharing cuddles and emotional rants through their face masks. Isaah Yeoh is on the big screen and sums it up with three words.
"It means everything."
The trophy is lifted and Panthers winger Brian To'o proposes to his fiance. She says yes. The kids of the Penrith players are posing for photos on the presentation stand. Others are doing angels in the golden confetti covering the ground. This one's for you, Western Sydney.
Congratulations Penrith, and congratulations Brisbane for laying on a decider for the ages.