The National Rugby League season is a long and arduous road. It does not matter how well you play or the awards you receive, Grand Final day is still the biggest hurdle of them all.
2012 Dally M Medallist Ben Barba isn’t the champion just yet. For this Sunday, the diminutive livewire will run out onto ANZ Stadium in front of 80 000 people and battle the greatest fullback of them all.
This is Billy Slater’s arena and he is Caesar.
The challenge couldn’t be any more daunting for Barba. But so far, the little fullback has chewed up and spat out pressure on a weekly basis.
At 4.55pm on Sunday in the bowels of the Olympic stadium, Barba will be holding his hands and staring at his boots. Just like Slater across the hall.
The walls will be shaking and the faint sounds of the pre-game entertainment long gone. Des Hasler is pacing with his hands in his pockets and a few players are still in the showers vomiting sweet nothings.
Barba needs to embrace the nerves or it will be over in a blink of an eye.
The two minute alarm rings through the room and the players jump to their feet. Some quicker than others.
Before Barba knows it, he is trailing his team-mates down the corridors of ANZ Stadium as the light at the end of the tunnel slaps him in the face.
The cheerleaders, the noise and the familiar faces mean nothing. Its you against your opponent and nothing else matters.
‘Advance Australia Fair’ might be playing through the arena, but the players are on another planet. Their first touch of the ball, the first tackle or maybe even a try?
Some players try to mumble the anthem and some don’t bother. It means nothing now.
The Mackay native knows Canterbury’s victory over the Storm in round 16 has little to do with Sunday’s coming result.
“Billy wasn’t playing that day and he’ll definitely add a bit more spark for them,” Barba said.
“I haven’t played in a grand final but I’m sure it’s a whole different ball game. What happened in the season means nothing.”
At least he knows the challenge ahead.
“Against Souths we were good and against Manly it was the same. But we’ve got to still be peaking on Sunday afternoon,” Slater told AAP.
“That’s when it all counts. For that 80-minute period and, when we get there, we’ve got to execute.”
On the grandest stage and at the biggest event of the season, its Barba versus Slater one more time.
Will Caesar continue to reign or will the rising underdog have his day?