SYDNEY - First against second. Ben Barba against Billy Slater. Des Hasler against Craig Bellamy.
Sunday’s NRL grand final between minor premiers Canterbury and Melbourne has all the ingredients to be a thriller.
The ANZ Stadium showdown has Bulldogs coach Hasler locking horns with Storm mentor Bellamy in a premiership decider for the third time in six years.
The first occasion was in 2007 when Bellamy’s side prevailed 34-8 against Hasler’s Manly, only for the Sea Eagles to turn the tables 12 months later with a record-breaking 40-0 triumph.
The gruff Hasler has added lustre to his reputation as one the finest coaches in the game by revolutionising a Bulldogs team that comfortably missed the finals last year in his first season there.
Like Bellamy, Hasler has shown a remarkable facility for bringing the best out of players previously considered flawed or journeymen and to mould a team totally committed to his style.
And victory against the Storm on Sunday would see him become the first man to win successive premierships with two different clubs.
Bellamy is full of admiration for the way Hasler has transformed the Bulldogs and the former NSW coach is expecting nothing different from the minor premiers on Sunday.
“They’ve been the best team and the most consistent team throughout the competition,” Bellamy said.
“He’s done a wonderful job in getting all of the guys on board and believing in what he wants them to do.”
“He’s obviously changed their game style and I’d imagine they’re pretty much going to stick with that on Sunday.
“They’ve been doing it for 24 weeks so I expect they’re going to stick with it because it’s been very successful.”
The Storm go into the game denying they are seeking redemption after being stripped of the premierships they won in 2007 and 2009 for cheating the salary cap but there’s no doubt there’s an element of that in the Melbourne air.
Just seven players remain from the side that beat Parramatta to win the 2009 decider.
But bolstered by the ever-present Big Three of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, Bellamy has built a formidable side made up of journeymen forwards and some exciting youngsters.
The likes of Bryan Norrie, Jaiman Lowe and Todd Lowrie have been given new leases of life by Bellamy after being released by Cronulla, South Sydney and Parramatta.
Gareth Widdop, Kevin Proctor, Jesse Bromwich and Justin O’Neill were all part of the Storm’s victorious 2009 Toyota Cup side and now play key roles in Bellamy’s team.
Norrie was set to return to his life as an electrician before Bellamy picked up the phone and invited him down to Melbourne.
“I have to admit I was shocked,” Norrie said.
“I’d had lots of injuries at Cronulla, lost my confidence, and was all set to go back on the tools.
“Craig is brilliant at identifying a role that suits the strengths of certain players and gives us a simple gameplan and we follow it.
“There’s no big secret. But he is the best coach I have ever played under and there is a feeling amongst all the players that we’d love to give him a premiership.”
While dazlling fullbacks Slater and Barba have captured the headlines, the key battle could be between the two hookers.
Queensland and Australia skipper Smith is recognised as the best No.9 in the game and his opposite number Michael Ennis will need to be at his best to nullify his influence.
The abrasive style of Ennis and five-eighth Josh Reynolds have been a key part of the Bulldogs success this season and the former NSW rake is under no illusions as to the size of his task.
“He’s the benchmark in our position and it’s always a good challenge,” Ennis said.
“I respect Cameron very highly, he’s a terrific player and a terrific fellow, so I know I’ll need to be at my best in my side and not worry about what Cameron’s going to do for Melbourne.”
“It’s about what I’ve focused on all year. Nothing will be changing in that regard just because it is a grand final.”