And so it ends. The mood among New Zealanders outside Suncorp Stadium immediately after the Warriors' 42-12 loss to the Broncos was not to be sad that the 2023 season had ended, but happy that it happened. Shaun Johnson summed it up with one word: special.
That is what the season has been like for the fans, players and anyone involved in the team. No one would have believed the Warriors would have been stopped short one game away from a grand final at the start of the season, no matter how optimistic.
Unfortunately, 'special' is also a very apt description of the Broncos' performance. It didn't matter that the Warriors had come off arguably their best performance in years by beating the Newcastle Knights last weekend. The six-time champions pulled the Warriors apart in a high-octane display, one that showcased just how well rounded a team they are.
Because really, this was always going to be an uphill battle for the Warriors. While a decent chunk of the 52,273-strong crowd were New Zealanders, a far larger, more confident chunk were locals who rose as one every time the Broncos looked to be gaining ascendancy. It took time for the score line to reflect just how on top they were, because the crazy first half featured seven tries.
Two of those went to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who broke a club record for tries in a season when he touched the ball down for the 25th time in 2023. This is a remarkable achievement, given that he missed five games through injury this season.
The stories of the game should be about the Broncos, though. Patrick Carrigan was immense in the middle of the park, always seeming to land face first in the tackle to facilitate a speedy play the ball. That suited Billy Walters just fine at dummy half, and he was well rewarded with two tries. Payne Haas showed a very effective turn of pace to gun it downfield and set up a try for Jesse Arthars.
Arthars did a stint with the Warriors as a loan player when the team was stuck in Australia, and it was another former teammate that did the most damage. Aside from throwing an intercepted pass that led to Watene-Zelezniak scoring, Reece Walsh was simply incredible. A true testament to just how confident a player he is came when the Broncos received the ball back after conceding that try, in roughly the same part of the field.
Walsh wasn't about to go into his shell, instead he ran the same snap play back on the blindside and threw a perfectly timed ball to Herbie Farnworth, correcting the mistake and wiping out the brief bit of parity gained by the Warriors as Farnworth jinked over to score.
There will be a bit of chat around the forward pass that led to Jordan Riki's try, and it probably deserves a conversation in regard to the bunker's powers to overturn such an obvious officiating error. But it's too easy to say that decision cost the Warriors the game, given how many errors they'd coughed up on either side of halftime.
Afterwards, the infamous Caxton Street was awash with pride from Warriors diehards who had travelled from both across the Tasman and from the local area they now call home. This was a big deal in New Zealand sport, with the team reaching a level of unbridled, passionate support that's rarely seen among Kiwi fans. Johnson acknowledged that post-match, saying that: "the reason we got all the buy-in and support is because they've seen what we've done. They've reacted to what we're doing, so we just keep doing what we're doing.
"It nice to know the difference we were making in people's lives, week to week."