In 2009, it was the Hayne Plane. In 2010, it was Todd Carnage. In 2011, it was the “new Benji Marshall“. And now, in 2012, we’re in the midst of Ben Barba Mania, as the brilliant No.1 drives his Bulldogs to the summit of the NRL ladder.
We’ve seen this storyline before: the explosive new talent bursts on to the scene and thrusts their lowly club well into September contention, while the rugby league community falls over itself in adulation of the rapidly rising star.
But in the previous three years, the narrative has featured a villain waiting to disrupt the fairytale. The Hayne Plane was shot down by Craig Bellamy’s Storm, Wayne Bennett masterminded the Dragons’ triumph over Carney’s Roosters, and Des Hasler skittled Shaun Johnson’s Warriors last year. And in the latest version, Geoff Toovey and his Sea Eagles are flying under the radar as Barba commands the headlines.
It’s hard to fault Canterbury-Bankstown at the moment. With today’s come-from-behind victory against Brisbane in the bag, the Bulldogs have strung together 11 consecutive wins and look like front-runners for the premiership. But Manly’s impressive five-tries-to-one win over a vaunted Souths outfit on Friday sounded a timely warning to the competition that the Eagles are a genuine premiership threat.
History supports Manly’s claim to the title. In the post-1999 era, only two of the 13 teams to have lifted the trophy didn’t play finals the previous year – Penrith in 2003, and Wests Tigers in 2005 – meaning it would be unusual for Canterbury or Souths to surge from outside the eight in 2011 to premiership glory in 2012.
In fact, the champions usually build success over a protracted sequence of finals series: of the last four clubs to win the grand final, Brisbane hadn’t missed a finals since 1993, Melbourne since 2003, Manly has appeared in September every year since 2005, and St George Illawarra claimed back-to-back minor premierships before their drought-breaking title.
The Bunnies and the Dogs lack the same kind of slow progression, much like the Hayne-inspired Eels, Carney’s Roosters (who were the incumbent wooden spooners), and Johnson’s Harlem Globetrotting Kiwis. Their momentum is more fickle, their form more fleeting, than the September-hardened Sea Eagles, or Storm, for that matter.
The ace in Canterbury’s hand is Des Hasler, the modern mastercoach. Equally, Michael Maguire has instilled a winning culture that Souths has lacked since 1989, a period during which they’ve tallied only one solitary finals appearance. The effect of the boss on these two rampant bandwagons remains to be seen, but the history books tell us that sides who bolt from the blue rarely greet the judges on grand final day.
In the last three years, momentum – as intense as it was for the Eels, Roosters and Warriors – only carried those sides so far. They were pipped by grizzled September veterans every time. This is why, with a star-studded team sheet and unrivalled finals experience, Toovey’s Silvertails currently sit in pole position for premiership glory.