The Man in the Middle

The location is Stadium Australia.

The score is 21-20, Brisbane are trailing the Roosters. Twelve seconds remain on the clock.

A slight breeze dribbles from the south, gusting intermittently before settling back into its languid pattern. Specks of moisture dance and tumble on the inconsistent folds of air. The weather is hardly enough to affect game play, but it is more than enough to be off-putting.

*Focus.*

The crowd, stirred into a rabid thirst for blood, claw and scream abuse. Their eyes burn red, fuelled by an afternoon of alcoholic indulgence. Like banshees, they howl and jeer, spit, yell and bang garbage bin lids and metal hoardings. The rhythm of drums spurs them on, forever demanding more noise, more anger and more carnage. From the ground the mob appears as a seething, deafening maelstrom of wild animals.

And at its centre stands one man.

*Focus.*

The opposition stare straight at him; determined and intimidating. He doesn?t notice them. He doesn?t notice the flecks of rain settling on his face. He doesn?t notice the animalistic crowd, baying for his blood. He blocks it all out ? folding, warping and distorting all outside influences into a tiny mental box which he shunts into a distant and forgotten corner of his mind.

All he sees is a ball perched atop a tee.

He lines the ball up.

He raises an arm. The crowd intensifies.

He doesn?t notice.

Three steps.

He swings his back foot forward.

He connects. The ball sails towards the uprights.

*Pause.*

With this kick, a club?s season hangs in the balance. Every try, every tackle, every celebration and every heart-wrenching injury ? all are consigned to irrelevancy if this kick misses its target.

Such is the power in the goal kicker?s hands ? or rather, feet.

Games are won and lost all based on the accuracy of the boot of one man on each team. A duffed kick can cost a team two competition points ? and as evidenced by the finals race this season ? two competition points are most valuable indeed for any team aspiring to grace the finals series with their presence.

If you think that this tale is all hyperbole, based on hypothetical situations which rarely occur, then perhaps this might open your eyes.

The Wests Tigers would be starring in their first ever finals berth, had Brett Hodgson kicked one more goal in their game against the Rabbitohs in round two of the season. Three shots for goal, two successful.

The Rabbitohs win by a field goal, and the Tigers join the also-rans come September.

Examples are everywhere. Were it not for three consecutive missed goals against the Cowboys in round thirteen, the Dragons would be preparing for a home semi-final this weekend. They only needed two of the goals to find their mark ? but all slid away to the side.

The Panthers can thank the wayward boot of Matthew Head for their Penrith semi-final this weekend.

And so it goes on, example after example of the importance of a missed goal. An off day with the boot can cost a team points, positions on the ladder, and in the most dire of circumstances, even a place in the finals.

So with that established, let?s see how the drama is unfolding back at Stadium Australia.

*Un-pause.*

The ball angles to the right of the sticks, before collecting the wind and tapering back to the left. It hits the right upright.

Drops.

Hits the crossbar.

Bounces.

Straight through the sticks.

The focus is broken, but it doesn?t matter, as the goal kicker is smothered in a sea of celebrating team mates. The siren sounds, but nobody has noticed. The opposition, once intimidating, are now deflated as they contemplate another year so close to victory.

The fans ? stunned ? pick themselves up and start the long trek out of the stadium.

And the goal kicker, the man in the middle, celebrates long into the night with his team mates. And why not?

The Broncos are through to the Grand Final.

22-21.

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Word count: 673

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