NOAH Lolesio keeps glancing at the Super Rugby AU trophy with stars in his eyes, resembling anything but a rugby star who less than two months ago had hit "a pretty big low".
Here he is, a grand final winner with the ACT Brumbies. What's more, he is man of the match and may well have earned a crack at the Wallabies' No. 10 jersey for the Bledisloe Cup opener.
Because Lolesio has orchestrated the finest playmaking performance of his young career to help the ACT Brumbies, featuring Berry's Will Miller, secure the Super Rugby AU crown in a 28-23 win over the Queensland Reds at Canberra Stadium on Saturday night.
The 20-year-old seemed anything but a kid who had not played a game in 64 days, when a hamstring injury left his stellar campaign on ice. At the time he feared his Brumbies campaign and Wallabies hopes would go with it.
"Definitely, I was at a pretty big low in the first couple of days," Lolesio said.
"To be honest I was more worried about my lungs than anything. My hamstring pulled up really well. I had full confidence coming into this game.
"It's awesome, winning a grand final, we're going to celebrate well."
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar had no doubt this was the man to take his side to a drought-breaking title when he picked him for his first match in two months against a rampaging Reds outfit.
In some ways the contest mirrored the Brumbies' interrupted Super Rugby campaign. A fast start was sparked by another Folau Fainga'a try from a rolling maul before Andy Muirhead crashed over in a fashion resembling that which helped deliver a different premiership to the capital. The footage of Steve Jackson needs little introduction to the Canberra faithful.
But then the Reds would hit back and slow the home side's momentum in front of 6000 delirious rugby fans making the most of the biggest crowd the venue has hosted in six months. Just like the COVID-19 pandemic brought the Brumbies' early season charge to a halt.
Early lineout dominance had put the hosts in the ascendancy. The visitors, charged with overcoming game day travel in search of their first title in nine years, had been their own worst enemy as they drew the ire of referee Angus Gardner.
Unstructured rugby provided the Reds with the counter punch they so desperately craved when one of Australian rugby's finest shining lights rose to the occasion.
Reds winger Jordan Petaia carved up the Brumbies defence before flicking a ball to Harry Wilson to score. The 20-year-old outside back's dazzling display of footwork and poise did enough to suggest this is a man whose highlight reels should be sold to the casual fan.
A James O'Connor penalty brought the visitors within two points at half-time. While the Brumbies were nine from nine when leading at the break this year, it seemed as though the onus would be on coach McKellar's bench to help snap a 16-year title drought.
Brumbies fullback Tom Banks soon made matters worse for Thorn when he danced his way around a handful of defenders to extend the lead.
Then it was Lolesio showing the "massive upside" that made him an easy Wallabies selection for Dave Rennie despite his injury lay-off with a field goal under pressure.
A 64th minute try to Angus Blyth ignited hopes of a Reds comeback, but from there the Queenslanders were repelled in all of their late raids, falling agonisingly short.
The championship perhaps will not feel quite the same as those iconic triumphs of the early 2000s in front of record crowds crammed into temporary seating at the end of the park.
But it is a grand final win nonetheless, and should be held in high esteem. This is, after all, likely how Super Rugby will look next year before a potential trans-Tasman playoff.
This felt like a season for the true believers, just like McKellar was in Lolesio.
"It's easy to reflect and say it was an easy decision," McKellar said.
"He has trained really well, our medical staff have done a great job with getting him back. It was four months there he hadn't played before the Rebels game [in round one] and he fronted up that night.
"We were confident he would do the same again. He was one of our best players."
AT A GLANCE
Super Rugby AU grand final: ACT BRUMBIES 28 (Folau Fainga'a, Andy Muirhead, Tom Banks tries; Noah Lolesio 2 conversions; Lolesio 2 penalties; Lolesio field goal) bt QUEENSLAND REDS 23 (Harry Wilson, Angus Blyth tries; James O'Connor 2 conversions; O'Connor 3 penalties) at Canberra Stadium. Referee: Angus Gardner.
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