25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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As a kid, I used to be told of fairy tales - how the ugly duckling got her prince charming after climbing up the beanstalk and managing to escape the fox dressed up as an old lady.
But I have, in the space of 6 months, witnessed a true fairy tale.
I am a Penrith Panthers supporter.
I follow a team that was not even rated to make the finals this year. Even a few people were saying that they would finish last.
Yet at this time, they are the undisputed NRL champions.
In 2001, the Panthers finished last. In 2002, they finished in a marginally better position, 12th. 2003 came around, and it started off just like the previous two - with a string of losses.
But what the future withheld for the Panthers would change the whole dynamics and landscape of the season. In the middle of April, a big black cat would be awoken from its slumber, and it was going to create some damage.
Actually, it wreaked absolute mayhem. It could all of a sudden play to its potential. A new excitement machine, with 17 parts, was being created. Genuine talent was being unearthed. Experienced heads were leading from the front.
It was almost as if they were sick of losing, and would do anything to regain that winning feeling - something the Panthers had experienced not much of in the previous two years.
By the middle of the year, the Panthers had gone from a bottom team, to one that was in the Top 4, and seen by some as a team with genuine premiership credentials.
It seemed that the players themselves only seriously thought they were a chance at premiership glory. But as the year wore on, the players were letting everyone else in on their "secret".
At the end of the 26 rounds, the Panthers had finished on top of the mountain, as minor premiers. The only time that had happened previously, in 1991, was the year they won their only premiership to date.
It was something that many people would not have boldly predicted before the start of Round 1. It was a great image for the NRL, amidst what was being touted as the best season ever ? a team going from worst to first in only two years.
A fairy tale was being created, but would it have the happy ending?
Quite convincing finals wins against the Broncos and Warriors had surged the Panthers into the ?end game?, the grand final. Their opponents would be the Roosters, the current giants of the NRL. It was a true David and Goliath battle in the making.
Apparently the Panthers had no chance. Their defence would not be adequate. They were very short on grand final experience, let alone big game experience. They would be like a startled rabbit in headlights.
But whilst the head (the money) was with the Roosters, the heart (goodwill support) was with the Panthers. It helped - there was no real pressure on them. It was all on the Roosters, and they definitely showed nerves in the lead up.
When the eagerly anticipated game finally arrived, the Panthers surprisingly held their own, and held a 6-0 half time lead. When the Roosters hit back, it seemed all the momentum was with the boys from the eastern suburbs, and they would win their second consecutive premiership.
This was likely to be a story with a sad ending.
However, a veteran forward, in the name of Scott Sattler, was going to add some of suspense towards the end of the story. He performed a dramatic cover tackle on Roosters winger Todd Byrne, who was more or less on his way to the try line - a try that could have very well sunk the Panthers hopes.
It was just the tonic that the tiring Panthers needed ? it lifted them, and made them feel invincible. Two more tries, and the happy ending was assured. Panthers 18, Roosters 6.
The Panthers were 2003 NRL premiers.
Legends had been created. A mixture of enthusiastic rookies and experienced heads, with a shrewd coach at the helm, had pulled off a miracle ? it was one of the biggest turnarounds in Australian sporting history.
This story is a modern day fairy tale. On how a timid pussy cat transformed into a rampaging black cat, and achieved power and glory.
I would call it ?Penrith Panthers ? Back in Black?.
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