Running man ... Slater. Photo: Getty Images
It was an innocuous question posed by a young girl at the grand final breakfast, but Melbourne fullback Billy Slater's reaction to being asked whether he or Bulldogs boom boy Ben Barba would score the most tries today indicated he had no intention of motivating his opponent with a cute reply.
With Barba's eyes squarely on him Slater baulked. He challenged the child to answer her question and even when the girl giggled ''you'' he still played it straight: ''As long as we get the win I don't care how many tries we score.''
The exchange hardly lit the fuse for fireworks this evening but some of the game's great fullbacks - Graeme Langlands, Keith Barnes, Greg Brentnall, Garry Jack and Darren Lockyer, each of them grand finalists - are adamant the fans at ANZ Stadium will see one of the most exhilarating one-on-one duels featured on grand final day.
However, the wise old heads also made it clear that despite Barba's unforgettable winter, Slater had the odds - and experience - needed to come out on top in the contest between the Storm's sorcerer and his brilliant apprentice.
Langlands, one of rugby league's eight Immortals, summed up the contest succinctly enough when he said it was ''very, very, very exciting''.
"I think it will be a great match-up,'' he said. ''They're two great players so the result of the game can certainly be on either one of them.''
''I'm not feeling too nervous at the moment; just enjoying it and taking it all in …'' - Ben Barba
Greg Brentnall is a former Bulldog now employed as an official for the Storm. He introduced the AFL-style mark to defuse the high ball as a member of the legendary 1980 Canterbury team known as ''The Entertainers'' and he showed as steady a nerve when asked to rate Barba against Slater. He maintained there was a long way to go before the code's latest whizz kid could be considered Slater's equal.
''It's too hard to compare Billy and Ben at this stage of their careers,'' he said. ''I used to love watching Ewan McGrady [the 1991 Rothmans medallist] play at Canterbury, but you couldn't compare him to [former champion Bulldogs halfback] Steve Mortimer at that level because [Mortimer] played consistently and he continued to excite in first grade for a number of years. I hope he emulates what Billy has achieved. I genuinely get excited when I see Ben play. Whenever he touches the ball everyone is on the edge of their seat and it's enormous; really exciting. He's a wonderful attacking player but he's been put under pressure before and faltered under the high ball. He hasn't got the all-round game Billy has, like his defence and being able to direct play from behind the line. Billy also stops as many tries as he scores. Everything I've mentioned comes with experience. Billy was a freakish talent like Ben when he first came along 10 years ago but he's developed into a great player. The best I've seen in my time.''
''We work as a unit, we don't narrow it down to two or three players. Everyone's got a job in our side and when everybody does their job it makes everyone else's job easier.'' - Billy Slater
Balmain's Garry Jack, whose last-gasp defence was tougher to crack than a walnut and whose son Kieren played in yesterday's AFL grand final for the Sydney Swans, suggested Canterbury's hopes of victory depended on Barba. ''I think Canterbury rely more on Ben Barba than Melbourne do Billy,'' he said. ''If Barba plays well there's a big chance Canterbury are going to win so Melbourne need to nullify him because his form has been that good all year. He wouldn't be out of place in the Queensland or Australian teams, although I wouldn't pick him ahead of Billy [for the October 13 Test].''
At the risk of destroying the grand final as a spectacle, Jack said the key to diluting both men's potency was to restrict their opportunities to inject themselves into the action. ''You can't give them any room,'' he said. ''The kick and chase needs to be excellent, put it to the sideline and have the scrum … you have to negate their impact because they're at their best from broken play. Billy Slater is very courageous, he'll come into the middle of the ruck and get the ball. The opposition needs to be very tight in its defensive pattern to stop him. It's not easy. Ben Barba is more broken play, Billy can be more direct up the middle of the ruck. Barba has been a big improver over the last couple of years. He's a match-winner and attacks just like Billy.''
''I'm just trying to do the best for my team whether it's running the length [of the field] or 10m. If they're happy I'm happy.'' - Barba
Balmain legend Keith Barnes, who was dubbed ''Golden Boots'' in the 1950s and '60s because of his ability to boot incredible goals, said the key to the dynamic duo was in their feet … and the ''twitch'' fibres in their leg muscles.
"They have the most important asset in the game,'' said Barnes. ''Both of them have an abundance of speed and they have the ability to capitalise on any mistake by the opposition and to make the break themselves. One play from them can change the trend of the game and they're going to play a major role in the grand final. Whether it is an attacking or defensive play… I'm certain one of them will have a major impact on the game."
''I don't think about [my injured knee] going into a game, I don't think about it during a game. It's not an issue for me. - Slater
Darren Lockyer, who started his top-grade career as the fullback for Brisbane before establishing himself as one of the code's great five-eighths, admitted he was in awe of the form Slater had produced since the Origin series despite a lingering injury to his left knee. ''He's been outstanding considering the injury he's had to deal with,'' said Lockyer. ''He's played on one leg for a number of weeks but he's getting better every week … This contest doesn't get any better. Slater and Barba are both very similar players, but Billy has a lot more experience in big games. Ben is a great player, he's similar to Jarryd Hayne in '09 when he lit the code up. He can sniff out an opportunity. Slater has that skill, but the other thing Slater has is he can also create opportunities with his passing game. Look, they're both fantastic but I played footy with Billy and I know what he's capable of.''