By Josh Mansour
When you talk about overwhelming feelings and nerves, it's not just something that occurs in the short space of 24 hours. For me, this was a week-long thing.
There was just so much emotion surrounding the NRL Grand Final, not just for myself but for my family and friends too. My phone was constantly popping off with calls and messages of support. It was amazing to feel so loved and know that so many people wanted you to succeed - that's quite a unique feeling in itself.
Looking back, the Penrith Panthers had an amazing season. 17 wins on the trot and we were now coming up against the Melbourne Storm who needed no introduction. The scene was definitely set. To say it was a big occasion would be an understatement.
You have to sacrifice so much to even win a minor Premiership in the NRL, let along get to a Grand Final. So even though it didn't go the way we liked on the night, I'm still so proud of everyone involved. It was my first experience of a Grand Final but I want that feeling again - no doubt about it.
Preparation gives you confidence, I've always stuck by that mantra. So I remember waking up on the morning of the game and trying to stay relaxed. Eating, napping, relaxing - sticking to my usual rituals and routines. I was just trying to picture it like any other game.
And to be fair, the entire day I was in a good headspace. That was until my wife started getting emotional as I was getting in the car to travel to the stadium - that's when it all hit me at once. I was actually playing in an NRL Grand Final. That's pretty big stuff.
In all honesty, I was confident heading into the game. Quietly confident. I thought we had the game plan in place to beat the Storm.
But to break it down simply, we just had an awful first half. And when I saw awful, I mean truly awful. No luck. No rub of the green with any of the referee's calls. And walking into the sheds at half-time we were down 20-0. Great. That definitely wasn't the way we had all visualised it.
For some, that can be quite a demoralising score line - it can definitely get in your head if you're not switched on. But my head coach Ivan Cleary and a few of our senior players weren't going to let that happen. There's no need to panic. Let's regain our focus and go again, right? So with that being said, we all got each other by the scruff of the neck and drilled it in our heads that a comeback was perfectly possible - and we weren't wrong.
We battled for 40 long minutes and clawed the score back to one try. And while it wasn't the result we were hoping for when the referee finally blew the whistle for full-time, I think we can hold our heads high.
It's the sort of mentality that made us the standout team for the season. That kind of swagger and arrogance that made our opponents well and truly s*** themselves. Everyone wanted to beat us that year, it's just a shame the Storm were the team to manage it on the occasion that mattered most.
I was disappointed. We were all disappointed. As you looked around you in the changing rooms after the game it honestly felt like a funeral. There was a lot of guys crying - and understandably so. It was a rough time, but we were fortunate enough to have our friends and families come into the sheds. It was good having them by our sides while we tried to digest what had just happened.
It's hard to describe it but there was just this underlying sense of disappointment in the room. It hung over us like a bad smell. I didn't like it. To work so hard to get to that point and see everything slip between your fingertips is a massive let down. Ivan was quick to remind us of how special the season was, though - it's not every day that you go on a 17-game win streak in one of the most bizarre seasons the NRL has ever seen.
The disruption, uncertainty and general feeling of the unknown. It's enough to throw most teams off balance - but not us. I think we handled everything very professionally but most importantly we didn't use it as an excuse.
From having to go on a lengthy break mid-pandemic to playing in empty stadiums every week, the camaraderie at the Panthers was forever present - it was like a brotherhood. Coming into the year no one really gave us a chance, so having that chip on our shoulders and wanting to prove people wrong from the outset was a real driving force behind our success.
Upon reflection, I'm immensely proud of the team - Penrith has a bright future and that long-awaited NRL Premiership ring certainly isn't too far away.