FIRE DOUSED | After returning to finals action in 2015, the St George-Illawarra Dragons struggled un...
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The pitch black of night seemed to echo the thumping and scraping of our boots as we dragged our weary legs onto yet another steep and winding track. A thick blanket of fog, reminiscent in shape of cotton wool, stretched over the lake far below to block it from view. The 20 litres of water sloshed around inside the jerrycan that we were required to carry as we trudged onward into the darkness, full packs weighing down on our aching shoulders.
We were on a Rotary expedition that was being overseen by the New Zealand Army. Our overnight excursion had already involved hours of tramping, interspersed with numerous problem solving activities that challenged our tired minds. We'd planned our route, and had already stretched ourselves far beyond what we thought we were capable of.
And we were only half finished.
It was the following afternoon when we reached our final challenge. After 28 hours in the bush, including a mere hour and a half of rest inside a hastily constructed bivouac, we were required to travel up one more ridge. We were worn out, sleep deprived, and mentally drained. Our muscles were aching, our feet were cramping, and the pain we'd felt during the first stages of the journey had become a burdened numbness that belied the reality that we'd travelled more than 30 kilometres in dense New Zealand bush.
But in 800m, that would all change.
A timed run up the hill, marked by a steep clay and gravel road, while carrying one of our group on a stretcher, as well as our packs and, of course, "Jerry". Conceptually simple, but physically demanding for our overworked bodies.
As the army officer counted down to the start, there was a real sense of importance on this final challenge. So much rested on it. The many hours we'd spend pushing ourselves both mentally and physically would have been in vain if we were to fail to give our all. To call the situation "make or break" would be to trivialise it - "forge or shatter" would be much more appropriate.
What followed next will stay with me for the rest of my life. A dozen minutes of empowerment and cathartic release that taught us more about ourselves than any lecture or psychologist ever could. Relationships were formed that will stand the ravages of time and distance.
It was exhausting and exhilarating all at once. It was agonising ecstasy; pleasurable pain. We gave it everything we had, constantly finding more and more to give. Every corner we turned in the road played mind games with us. Each time we hoped to view the finish line, and yet saw more corners and rough incline.
There were strained screams, pulled muscles, and some very colourful language. But we pressed onward, digging ever deeper within ourselves until we finally crossed that line.
It was the longest 12 minutes of our lives, and yet I wished it would linger forever.
Something similar is about to be experienced for 8 clubs across the NRL.
As the regular season winds itself up into the tightly coiled spring that is the finals series, teams are taking their starting positions for their run up the hill. They've already endured half a year of highs and lows, changes in form and fortune, and niggles and bruises.
Other teams, like the Roosters and Warriors, remain stuck in the disorientating bush of the lower half of the table, having long lost their compass and waylaid by their inability to press onward when it was needed. And let's not even mention Cronulla, who haven't been seen despite sending out search parties for more than 40 years.
When that starting hooter signals the beginning of the finals, competition points are irrelevant. Table positions are worthless. All that matters is that match; that set; that play.
80 minutes, both collectively and individually, will define each team's season. This is their forge or shatter moment.
But the players aren't the only ones on this magic carpet ride. Fans, too, will experience every moment. Even neutrals will be able to taste the sweetness of victory and the bitterness of defeat as the script of finals football is written into a memorable screenplay.
This could be exhausting and exhilarating for you all at once. This could be your cathartic release of empowerment. It will be over before you know it, and yet it could linger forever.
But only if you let it.