Published in Thirteen in 2005
by Bryce Eulenstein
The Ten Best Australian Grand Finals
10. 1963: St George v Western Suburbs, Sydney Cricket Ground, 24th August
The presence of the great St George era from 1956-66 takes the limelight away from the best teams ever to wear the famous black-and-white jumper of the Western Suburbs Magpies. Determined to end Saints run, Wests became known as the ‘Millionaires’, as they spent large sums luring top players to Pratten Park. Built around legendary halfback, Arthur Summons, their pack boasted two of the toughest players to play for Australia, Kel O’Shea and the legendary Noel “Ned” Kelly. Three successive times they met the legendary Dragons in the decider. They were really the only side that threatened them. 1963 was their last roll of the dice. Played in atrocious conditions, the match is best remembered for the famous John O’Grady photograph of rival captains Norm Provan and Arthur Summons embracing after the game.Wests believed they could win this time – third time lucky. They had been flogged by St George 22-0 in ’61, but the ’62 decider was a neck and neck affair, won controversially by St George 9-6. Wests had claimed that their fleet footed winger, Peter Dimond, was tackled off the ball in a try scoring situation. But this time, coach Jack Fitzgerald was confident. Wests had adopted Saints’ plan of early brutality to tire the opposing forward pack, and then turning the ball wide to exploit the gaps. Legendary half back Arthur Summons was the ringmaster.
Wests beat Saints three times that year: 8-5, 12-5, and, in the major semi final, 10-8.That game was only the second semi final that Saints had lost in eight years. Their game plan was based around nullifying the brilliance of Reg Gasnier. Brimming in confidence, they trained in a muddy park on the Thursday before the game, perfect preparation for a grand final played in a wet Sydney winter.
St George were fielding all three grades that day. By the time the first grade got underway, they had won both lower grades. Making his grand final debut for St George was a young kid from Wollongong called Greame Langlands. A record crowd of 69,860 braved the rain, as both sides played quality, tough football that belied the conditions. By kick-off, the middle of the ground had deteriorated into a muddy mess.
Wests’ Summons made the early play – a kick in goal that was covered by John King. Shortly after, Norm Provan regathered a loose ball, and found halfback George Evans on the harder ground near the touchline. Cover defenders coming from the muddy midfield were no chance. Saints were up 3-0. A Gasnier penalty goal made it 5-0, and Saints were starting to take control. Giant Norm Provan was dictating play midfield, and Wests’ efforts to contain him were failing. Provan lost the ball over the try line late in the half, and the Magpies hung on until half time.
The cricket pitch area of the SCG was fast becoming a quagmire. Ankle deep mud made running almost impossible, and players jerseys became covered in mud to the point of being unrecognisable. Saints settled down to defend their lead, confident that the mud would make a Wests’ comeback impossible. However, when Langlands fielded a Summons kick, and attempted to play the ball, one of the markers kicked through, and Gil MacDougal grounded the ball beside the posts. It was the first try scored against Saints in a grand final in five years. Don Parish slipped during the conversion, and the ball went wide. With the scores at 5-3, Saints were still confident of victory, but Wests were growing in confidence as well.
But the overall winner was the mud. By midway through the second half, no player was recognisable. The SCG was a quagmire. Players would slide two or three yards from where they fell. Mud in the eyes became a problem, with ambulance men patrolling the sidelines with buckets of water so the players could wash their faces! The conditions took their greatest toll on Reg Gasnier. Moved to the wing after a knock on his jaw, Gasnier suffered knees in the back due to players sliding around in a tackle. Wests then shifted Peter Dimond to the centres to capitalise.
What followed are two of the most controversial moments in grand final history.
Late in the game, Langlands broke through and passed the ball to Johnny King, who was knocked down by the cover defence. King jumped to his feet, and with the Wests players settling for the play-the-ball, King took off, and scored in the corner. Wests players protested wildly, but referee Lawler reckoned that he never called ‘held’. Saints were in front 8-3.
Wests had one more chance to level the scores. With seven minutes to go, Summons laid on a kick for a flying Peter Dimond, and a race between him and Eddie Lumsden for the ball followed. Dimond got their first to ground the ball, but referee Lawler, still downfield in the mud, refused to signal the try. Dimond, he claimed, had failed to ground the ball.
St George held on to win 8-3. In the aftermath of the game, the Wests entourage was fuming, and unfounded claims of refereeing bias circulated for years. It still does. Sadly, the game represented the last appearance in a grand final for the proud Western Suburbs Club.
Yet, despite the anger, Arthur Summons was gracious in defeat. In embracing Provan – a moment caught in that famous photo, Summons was displaying the ultimate sporting message, of grace in victory and defeat. The photo won the prestigious British Press Photographer’s award for 1963, and became the basis for the three trophy’s that would dominate Australian Rugby League in the last 20 years, the Winfield, Optus and Telstra Cups.
St George 8 (G Evans, J King tries, R Gasnier goal)
Western Suburbs 3 (G MacDougall try).
ST GEORGE: G Langlands, E Lumsden, R Gasnier, W Smith, J King, B Pollard, G Evans, K Ryan, I Walsh (c), M Porter, N Provan (c), E Rasmussen, J Raper
WESTERN SUBURBS: D Parish, J Mowbray, K McGuinness, G McDougall, P Dimond, A Summons ©, D Malone, D Meaney, N Kelly, J Gibson, J Hayes, K O’Shea, K Smyth
9. 1999 Melbourne v St George Illawarra, 26th September
The Unthinkable Result II: Penalty Try Slays Dragons
In the late 1980’s, when Rugby League grand finals were played at the small Sydney Football Stadium between old established teams, no one could have imagined how the game would change over the next decade. If anyone had suggested that the grand final would be played in front of 100,000 people, one would have been wrapt. Had it been suggested that the result would not be decided until the final moments, contain one of the all time great tries, and one of the most controversial moments in league history, you’d be salivating. And if you said the premiers would come from Melbourne and celebrate in a tent, they would spend the rest of their life in a rubber room. But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday, 26th September 1999.Melbourne is Australia’s second largest city, home to 3.5 million people who know as much about rugby league as Shane Warne knows about telephone etiquette. The Melbourne Storm was merely a bargaining tool at the end of the Super League war – the trade off for killing off the code in Adelaide, Perth and the Gold Coast. It was John Ribot’s gold watch from Rupert Murdoch. It was a dumping ground for unwanted former Super League players. No one had heard of Rodney Howe, Scott Hill, Matt Geyer or Brett Kimmorley. And no one really cared.
Even after they debut the year earlier, when they had won their first three games to lead the competition early, and eventually made the semi finals. Even when they beat Parramatta to claim their historic place in the ’99 decider –the last Grand Final for the century in the eyes of those that can’t count.
Melbourne had finished third in the minor premiership. St George Illawarra had finished sixth. However, the Dragons, in their first year as a joint venture from the two former Red and White clubs. Saints were red hot favourites for three reasons. Firstly, they were the best players from two clubs. Secondly, their demolition of minor premiers Cronulla in the preliminary final was clinical, with stand off Anthony Mundine unstoppable. Thirdly, no one took Melbourne seriously.
The match was the first ever Grand Final not played at Moore Park, where the Sydney Showground, Cricket Ground and Football Stadium stand side by side. Stadium Australia (now Telstra Stadium) was hosting the big game as a rehearsal for the following years Olympic Games. The venue was much more accessible to most Sydneysiders, and they came out in droves. The crowd of 107,558 eclipsed the old benchmark set at Odsal in 1954 for league’s biggest live audience.
St George were favourites. Picking the best from last years Illawarra and St George teams, they played both previous years stand offs, with Illawarra’s Barrett shifting to half back. He and Mundine shared an uneasy truce, and spent most of the season playing down talks of a rift. Barrett was touted as Brad Fittler’s long term replacement in the Test number six. Mundine, in turn, was outspoken and claimed to be the worlds best player.
Both teams had a nervous start. Dragons hooker Nathan Brown kicked out on the full early – Melbourne knocked on from the restart. Yet Shaun Timmins almost caught a Barrett bomb in the second minute – knocking on before he could ground the ball. Saints camped in Melbourne’s half for the first quarter of an hour. Melbourne repelled many raids on their line, and answered all the questioned asked by Barrett’s bombs. The pressure told in the 14th minute, when Craig Fitzgibbon collected a Mundine grubber in goal. A conversion, followed by a penalty goal, had Saints leading 8-0.
Shortly after, young Saints full back Luke Patten suffered a bad knee injury. Mercurial winger Nathan Blacklock moved to fullback. Not a noted defender, dragons fans had their hearts in their mouths as Blacklock fielded the steady stream of Kimmorley kicks that was suddenly sent his way. Growing in confidence, Blacklock chose the 30th minute to try his luck.
Brett Kimmorley decided to chip kick on the Dragons 30 – trying to catch Blacklock standing deep. But the Dragons Aboriginal flyer pounced on the ball as it was falling. He was at absolute top speed, and before anyone had registered what was happening, Blacklock was streaking away toward the southern try line – with the biggest grin in town. It was one of the biggest plays you would ever want to hear. 107,558 people stood and cheered as one, as Blacklock did a corrobboree to celebrate. Fitzgibbon’s conversion brought up the half time score – St George 14-0. Everything was going to plan.
Melbourne got its first penalty early in the second half when Kimmorley was hit high by Saints firebrand prop Craig Smith. Storm winger Craig Smith – a fill-in winger from Brisbane Norths, Melbourne’s feeder club in the Queensland Cup, potted the goal. Saints dominance didn’t wane. Again, they camped down Melbourne’s end of the field, looking for the killer blow. Storm fullback Robbie Ross just beat Blacklock to a menacing Barrett grubber. Moments later, Blacklock dropped the ball attempting to kick and chase. And five minutes later, with the killer blow finally at hand, Anthony Mundine dropped the ball over the line. He had kicked and regathered, but with two unmarked supports out wide, had decided to take on Storm’s Smith instead.
Two minutes later, Melbourne get their second penalty of the game, with Ross tackled without the ball. Converting their slim fortune to field position, Melbourne attack. Matt Geyer ran across field, and found Tony Martin in support. Martin crashed over for the Storm’s first try. Unconverted, the score remains at 14-6.
Saints replied two minutes later, with Paul McGregor fielding a Barrett bomb. At 18-6, with 24 minutes remaining, Wayne Bartrim missed the simple conversion. The miss came with a strange sense of foreboding. Despite the comfortable lead, Saints had yet to put the game to bed.
Then the tide turned.
Two minutes after Bartrim’s miss, Brett Kimmorley delivered a crisp pass to put replacement forward Ben Roarty over wide out. Smith’s conversion brought Melbourne back to within 6 points, with 20 minutes to play.
The Storm, despite being outclassed, were clearly steeling themselves for the finish. The puppet master was Kimmorley, whose kicking game kept turning the big Saints pack around. With better field position, they waited for the crumbs. When Nathan Brown was penalised for a play-the-ball infringement, Smith potted the goal. At 18-14, the Storm were coming home with a wet sail.
Overhead, the bright sunny day receded beneath a huge menacing cloud approaching from the south. The omen – Cecile B Demille couldn’t have done it better. St George had their backs to it, and didn’t see it coming. Melbourne did.
Melbourne camped in the Saints’ quarter, as the Dragons slowly began to doubt themselves. With six minutes remaining, a Brown bomb found Timmins over the line – but he was ruled offside. It was a big call to make, but not a pinch as to what came next.
By the 77th minute, the Storm forwards had put in a big set of six, and Kimmorley launched a cross field bomb for Craig Smith. Smith caught the ball cleanly in mid air, but was hid hard by Saints winger Jamie Ainscough coming across in cover. Smith dropped the ball – Ainscough had believed that he had saved the day. But referee Bill Harrigan, in the biggest call of his career, called for the video referee to check the tackle.
For four agonising minutes, the various video angles beamed to the huge crowd gradually unfolded a story that was unbelievable. Ainscough had connected with Smith’s head, and knocked him cold before he fell to the ground. One the video ref’s advice, he awarded a penalty try.
At 18-all, and with Smith still unconscious, Matt Geyer landed the winning goal from right in front. Three minutes later, and Melbourne were premiers.
A disbelieving Glenn Lazarus fumbled his way through the victory speech. He had sat his own milestone – becoming the only player in history to win premierships with three clubs. The club were caught unprepared too. Without a Leagues Club, they hurriedly erected a marquee in a park in Melbourne and scrounged for enough food and alcohol to do the occasion proud.
The unthinkable had occurred – Melbourne had become the toast of rugby league!
Melbourne 20 (T Martin, B Roarty, C Smith tries, Smith 3 goals, M Geyer goal)
St George Illawarra 18 (Fitzgibbon, Blacklock, McGregor tries, Bartrim 2, Fitzgibbon goals)
MELBOURNE: R Ross, C Smith, A Moule, T Martin, M Bai, M Geyer, B Kimmorley, G Lazarus ©, R Swain, R Howe, P Marquet, S Kearney, T Nikau. Subs: M Rua, D Williams, R Bawden, B Roarty
ST GEORGE-ILLAWARRA: L Patten, N Blacklock, P McGregor ©, S Timmins, J Ainscough, A Mundine, T Barrett, C Pearson, N Brown, C Smith, D Treacy, L Thompson, W Bartrim. Subs: C Leikvoll, C Ward, B Mackay, R Wishart
8. 1969 Balmain v South Sydney, Sydney Cricket Ground, 17th September 1969
The Unthinkable Result I: Balmain Boys Don’t Cry
One of the most enduring images of my youth was the sight of the wild Balmain celebrations after the 1969 Grand Final. The Tigers, given no chance against one of the all time forward packs, decided that if they couldn’t out-muscle them, they’d out-smart them. And that’s how they stopped the phenomenal South Sydney Rabbitohs in their tracks. And settled a 60 year grudge.It’s now legend that Souths won the 1909 final on a forfeit. What is disputed is Balmain’s version. Both sides had been upset at the scheduling of the match as a curtain raiser for a test. The fledgling NSWRL wanted make a big day of it to attract a large crowd. Both clubs wanted the final to stand alone. According to Balmain, both teams agreed NOT to play the game, but Souths turned up, kicked off, scored a try, and claimed the premiership. The action sparked a feud that has simmered ever since.
By 1969, South Sydney had assumed St George’s mantle as league giants. Souths entered the grand final with a near test pack, and two consecutive premierships under their belt. Together with St George, they were carving a dynasty that had greedily hogged the last 20 premierships, save for one intrusion by Western Suburbs way back in 1952. Balmain, like many other sides, had merely been cannon fodder in all it’s attempts since it’s last premiership in 1947. The prognosis for 1969 didn’t look good, either. Club legend Keith Barnes had retired the year earlier. Their main attacking weapon, Arthur Beetson, was suspended.
Tigers coach Leo Nosworthy had a team of virtual no-names, save for former British test star David Bolton, and South African winger Len Killeen. Bought from St Helens earlier in the year, Kileen scored a club record 207 points. The rest of the side was based around good, honest club stalwarts, such as Gary Leo, Alan Fitzgibbon (father of Craig), and Peter Provan. They faced a giant Souths side, boasting seven internationals.
No one gave the Balmain no-names a chance, but the Tigers were confident, having beaten Souths once in the season. With this in mind, Nosworthy created his master plan – get ahead early, and then slow the game down. This would unsettle Souths, he argued. The main weapon? Feign injury!
Unbeknown to Nosworthy, Souths coach Clive Churchilll was having trouble keeping his players minds on the job. They had been believing the press – all they had to do was turn up and collect the JJ Giltinan Shield. They were totally unprepared for what was going to happen.
From the kick-off, Balmain jumped out of the blocks. Bolton had an early attempt at field goal (worth two points in those days), which went wide. Souths full back Eric Simms was grounded in goal. From the restart, Bolton had another attempt, and nailed it. Shortly after, Killeen landed his first goal. Not long after that, some Bolton brilliance gave him his second. He drop kicked deliberately into the Souths pack, and John Sattler was ruled offside when fielding the ball. Midway through the half, Balmain were ahead 6-0.
Three disallowed tries followed. George Rubner hit Souths winger Brian James as the latter attempted to score in the corner. James was ruled to have taken the corner post out. Moments later, McCarthy, was in the clear and about to put Ron Coote over – but was ruled offside. Balmain’s Barry McTaggart was penalised for a double movement.
Half time came, and Balmain started the second half as they started the first. Bolton and Provan combined to send Terry Parker on a long run, before lobbing a ball to replacement Sid Williams to score in the Paddington Corner. Killeen didn’t convert, but Balmain were up 9-0.
Then Nosworthy’s plan came into effect. Balmain simply slowed the game down to a snails pace. Players fell with ‘injury’ with the ball, with the bigger Rabbitoh side fuming as an endless trail of trainers would come on and tend to the ‘injuries’. Robbed of momentum, frustrated and mentally under prepared, they had no hope of coming back. The best they could do was a lone goal to Eric Simms 18 minutes from time. A late Bolton field goal brought up the final score, Balmain 11-2 South Sydney.
Balmain had plenty of heroes that day. Hooker Peter Boulton, playing only his second first grade game, won plenty of scrums against test hooker Elwyn Walters. Gary Leo played the game of his life – taking the challenge up after Beetson’s suspension. David Bolton had been superb, and Peter Proven, despite a severe rib injury, was immovable mid field. In captaining the side, Provan, with older brother, St George’s more famous Norm, became the only times that brothers had captained teams to premiership glory.
The 1969 premiership was Balmain’s only title since 1947. Souths were shattered by the loss, but were there again a year later – a far more committed outfit. Not even a badly smashed jaw to skipper John Sattler would let South’s resolve weaken. They weren’t going to be beaten by the underdogs the next time around!
Balmain 11 (S Williams try, L Kileen 2 goals, D Bolton 2 field goals)
South Sydney 2 (E Simms goal).
BALMAIN: R Smithies, G Ruebner, A Fitzgibbon, T Parker, L Kileen, K Outten, D Bolton, B McTaggart, P Boulton, G Leo, J Walsh, J Spencer, P Provan ©
SOUTH SYDNEY: E Simms, M Cleary, R Honan, K Burke, B James, D Pittard, R Grant, J O’Neill, E Walters, J Sattler ©, R Moses, R McCarthy, R Coote
7. 1955 South Sydney v Newtown, Sydney Cricket Ground, 17th September 1955
Eleven Games Of Sudden Death
South Sydney’s amazing 1955 season deserves to be preserved in history. After winning the premiership in 1954, they had lost six matches out of the nine played in the first round. Then they faced their previous seasons runners up, Newtown, at Redfern Oval. When the Bluebags scraped home 17-16, Souths were left last on the ladder, with only eight games left before the finals. Chasing their third straight premiership, and their sixth straight grand final, many wrote them off. An impromptu meeting under the grandstand after that loss saw a general airing of grievances by the players. Reaffirming their commitment to the club, and each other, they took the field for their next round match against Norths in a better frame of mind, and jagged their fourth win of the season, 27-12. Next week they downed Balmain 18-10, and followed that up with a 43-9 flogging of Canterbury. Souths were back in form, but with only six wins from 12 matches, and with only five remaining, they still appeared to be out of the running for the top four.
However, they were gaining momentum, and people gradually sat up and started to take notice after further big wins against Parramatta (37-15), Easts (22-11) and Wests (28-17). With two rounds remaining, and still four points short of fifth place, they prepared for a showdown with Manly at home.
The Sea Eagles were going against the script, however, and grafted their way to a 7-4 lead, with the Rabbitohs in desperate trouble. Central to their plight was an injury to legendary fullback Clive Churchill. He had sustained a broken arm in the sixth minute of play, but rather than leave the side down, he stayed on, wrapping an exercise book around the break to act as a splint, and taking advantage of pain killing injections.
Souths never gave in. Chocka Cowie levelled the scores late in the match with a try wide out. However, still four points adrift of the top four, a draw would have ended the season. Churchill pleaded with captain Jack Rayner to be allowed to take the sideline conversion. With his broken arm hanging limply by his side, Churchill’s attempt was never going to be a great one. The kick was terrible, but still, miraculously, managed to sneak over to give Souths a 9-7 win, and keep their final hopes alive.
Churchill never played again that season, but the tide was with Souths now, and their last round 27-17 defeat of St George saw them scrape into fourth position. They had won eight straight sudden death games to do it. Again they faced Manly in the first semi final, and again, in another tight match, they scraped home 14-12. They were now only one more win away from the grand final.
Another close match occurred in the preliminary final against St George. With eight minutes to play, the score was locked up at 14-all. However, Souths were given a string of late penalties, allowing Bernie Purcell to boot Souths into the grand final, with a 18-14 victory. After 10 straight wins, only Newtown, the one team they had not beaten all year, stood in their way.
Newtown’s superior backline gave them all important field position in the game. Although no tries were scored in the first half, the Bluebags were definitely the better side, with their centres Brian Clay and Dick Poole dominating. Close to half time, Newtown full back Gordon Clifford, who has already booted three penalties, kicked a 45 yard field goal, to send his side in with a half time lead of 8-4.
Buoyed by the first half, the Bluebags returned for the second half determined to continue to run Souths down out wide. With the scores unchanged for 20 minutes, Newtown launched continuous attacking raids in search of the knockout blow. It seemed as though the blow was coming when test centre Poole sliced through out wide, and sped for the corner. With only fullback Don Murdoch to beat, Poole stepped back inside and was caught by South pivot Jack Doherty only three yards short. Doherty had come from nowhere to make the tackle, and the effort lifted the tiring Souths pack immeasurably.
Before Doherty’s tackle, their only bright spot had been the wonderful efforts of hooker Ernie Hammerton in the scrums. With a better than 2-1 majority of possession (he ended up winning the scrums 30-12), Souths started to use the ball, and return Newtown’s fire out wide. The try that turned the match was a classic. Half Col Donohue made a blind side dash near halfway, and put winger Dale Puren in the clear. When the defence of Clifford emerged, Puren put a centre kick up, which was taken by big Jack Rayner mid field. The big prop found test winger Ian Mior in support on the other flank, and Moir raced over to score out wide. Although Purcell missed the sideline conversion, the score was now 8-7 to Newtown.
The Bluebags responded in classic fashion, with a sweeping backline movement involving Poole, Clay, hooker Ellis and half Whitton, before Ken Considine scored in the corner. Clifford missed the conversion from the sideline, but were leading 11-7 with only five minutes remaining. Souths needed a converted try to win.
With urgency, the Rabbotohs ground play deep in Newtown’s half. However, the Bluebags were content to merely grind their way up field, and hold on for victory. However, Jack Rayner, in possibly the most important play of his career, lashed out with his feet in a ruck. He connected, and the ball bounced dangerously close to the line. Newtown lock Peter Ryan seemed to have the ball covered, but an awkward bounce between his legs enabled Rayner to toe the ball in goal. Despite the frantic attempts by Clifford to force the ball, Col Donohue got his fingers to the leather first, and the try was awarded next to the posts. Purcell, with the weight of the dramatic season on his shoulders, converted, to give Souths a 12-11 lead in the dying minutes of the game
Now Newtown were in desperation. They had managed to get the ball over halfway, despite some rejuvenated Souths defence. Desperate for a chance, a glimmer of hope presented itself with 3 minutes remaining. When Souths prop Norm Nilson belted Ellis in a ruck, referee Col Pearce, in his first ever grand final, awarded Newtown a penalty. Gordon Clifford took the shot from 45 yards out, near touch in front of the Sheridan Stand. He moved in, and struck the ball sweetly. The ball sailed straight toward the uprights, and just as the Newtown fans and players began to celebrate, the ball dropped. It want under the crossbar by a few agonising inches. Souths had held on to win their 15th premiership, 12-11!
No team has ever won a premiership by coming back from the dead so often in a few weeks as Souths did in 1955. For a team that has proudly worn the title of premiers for a record 20 seasons, the 1955 grand final stands alone as their greatest day. It was also a special day for more reasons that that. It was the last grand final before St George started their magnificent run on 11 straight, thus ending a magnificent South Sydney era that had seen them contest seven straight grand finals, and six premierships. And even though the great Clive Churchill did not take part in the action that day, it is fitting that it was he, as Souths coach, brought another five premierships back to Redfern immediately after St George’s run. With a direct hand in half of South Sydney’s 20 premierships, it is fitting that the medal awarded to the man of the match in today’s grand finals bears his name.
South Sydney 12 (I Moir, C Donohoe tries, B Purcell 3 goals)
Newtown 11 (K Considine try, G Clifford 3 goals, field goal)
SOUTH SYDNEY: D Murdoch, I Moir, M Gallagher, M Spencer, D Puren, J Dougherty, C Donohoe, D Donoghue, E Hammerton, N Nilson, J Rayner (c), B Purcell, L Cowie
NEWTOWN: C Clifford, K Considine, B Clay, R Poole (c), R Preston, R Kelly, R Whitton, L Hampson, G Ellis, D Stait, F Narvo, H Holloway, P Ryan
6. 1986 Parramatta v Canterbury Bankstown, Sydney Cricket Ground, September 26th
The Closest Game Of All
The 1986 Grand Final may be remembered as a dour, unattractive game, as the scoreline asserts. But never in the history of the game has there been a decider between two all time great sides at their absolute peak. Never have to sides been so evenly matched. And never has there been a closer grand final. In the end, the only difference was a lone goal to the greatest point scorer Australia had produced. Michael Cronin, recovering from a serious eye injury, was to produce his finest moment
Cronin’s year had been one of frustration. He suffered a detached retina in a trial match, and doctors advised him to retire, or risk permanent blindness. At age 36, he wasn’t ready to retire, and as the Eels surged toward the minor premiership, his keenness for one last hurrah grew. Coach John Monie decided to give him time to test his vision and Mick Cronin made his reserve grade debut in round 16. In that match, he broke his ribs, and was out of action until the major semi final. That game became the first full first grade game that he played in a year. If that wasn’t all, on the morning of the Grand Final, he headed up the F6 for the last time, and got stuck behind a six car pile up! He pulled his car off the road, walked to the crash site, and politely asked a policeman if there was any way he could get to Sydney in a hurry. The policeman freaked when he saw Cronin standing there, and organised a police car to get him to the SCG. He arrived half an hour before kick off!
Despite Parra’s easy win in the major semi final, Canterbury WERE defending premiers, and the memory of 1984 was still vivid in the minds of the Parramatta players. If not, they were reminded quickly when Peter Kelly dropped his knees into Ray Price, and Canterbury’s strong arm tactics came to the fore. Bulldogs coach Warren Ryan was banking on upsetting Parramatta’s attacking flair with niggling penalties, thereby putting pressure on the underdone Cronin kick goals. With impaired vision, Ryan argued, early missed goals would sap his confidence. Paul Langmack was constantly holding down players in tackles when Parramatta were attacking deep in Canterbury territory. But referee Mick Stone would have none of it, and penalised them willingly. Cronin had two shots at goal from such penalties, but they both hit the uprights. Ryan’s plan had started well.
In the 17th minute, Peter Sterling put a beautiful chip over the Canterbury defence close to their line. In a brilliant feat, Brett Kenny dived over the Canterbuty pack, grabbed the ball, and scored. Stone ruled that he hadn’t grounded the ball. Nevertheless, the Eels soldiered on, with the pack playing like demons. Price was in his element, with ruthless defence the order of the day. The ‘bookends’, props Geoff Bugden (whose brother Mark was the Bulldogs hooker) and Terry Leadbeater were not far behind. Parramatta were making Canterbury look lethargic, and Cronin’s third attempt at goal, a majestic kick from a difficult angle, took his total Parramatta points tally to 1999. At half time the Eels lead 2-0.
Parramatta continued in the same vein in the second half, but a Terry Lamb penalty made it 2-all. Canterbury captain Steve Mortimer made his troops realise that, despite their poor performance, that they could yet win the game. The Bulldogs responded, and an increasingly battered Ray Price simply dug in, and tackled himself to the point of exhaustion. The Parramatta pack, on seeing their champion captain do this, decided to do the same. When David Boyle flattened Price, the Eels resolve to out defend Canterbury stiffened even further, and grimly they turned and witnessed another legend, Cronin, post a magnificent goal. It was his 2001st point, his last, and his most important. With 20 minutes to go Parra dug in to defend their slender 4-2 lead.
The goal also stiffened Canterbury’s resolve. Five minutes later, Bulldog fullback Phil Sigsworth tackled Kenny high, and was sent off. With Parramatta tiring, Mortimer urged his troops on, and Canterbury set up camp in the Parramatta half. With five minutes left, winger Andrew Farrar tried to sneak past his opposite, Eric Grothe, and score a try in the corner. When Farrar’s progress was finally halted, over the sideline, no less than six Parramatta defenders peeled themselves up from the ruck. Most of them were forwards. Shortly after, Geoff Bugden was sin binned for tacking a player without the ball. Terry Lamb missed with the long range attempt at goal, but still Canterbury came back. Steve Mortimer instigated one last desperate raid with only a few seconds on the clock, and the raid ended five metres out. With massive overlaps, and Mortimer screaming for the ball, Mark Bugden tried to burrow his way over from dummy half. He was tackled 10cm short of the line, and before he could play the ball, the fulltime siren sounded. Forlornly, Bugden looked up at his defender, and it was none other that Ray Price. Like Cronin’s last kick, Price’s last tackle was a premiership winner. Nevertheless, he couldn’t smile, or even pump his fist in the air in triumph. He was exhausted.
Parramatta had won, 4-2. An emotional Price broke down during the victory speech, as he announced that “This will be the last time I ever play here.” He then called on a beaming Cronin to accept the Winfield Cup with him. Peter Sterling had won the inaugural Clive Churchill Medal. As they did the lap of honour, the realisation had dawned that the two legends, Ray Price and Mick Cronin, had played their final game.
Parramatta 4 (Cronin 2 goals)
Canterbury Bankstown 2 (Lamb Goal)
PARRAMATTA: P Taylor, M Delroy, M Cronin, S Ella, E Grothe, B Kenny, P Sterling, G Bugden, M Moseley, T Leadbeater
CANTERBURY: P Sigsworth, A Farrar, M Hagan, C Mortimer, S O’Brien, T Lamb, S Mortimer ©, P Kelly, M Bugden, P Tunks, S Folkes, P Dunn, P Langmack
5. 1942 Canterbury Bankstown v St George, Sydney Cricket Ground, 12th September
When The Troops Stormed The SCG
The 1942 grand final will be long remembered for the atrocious conditions it was played in. The 26,171 fans that braved the wet day glimpsed two of rugby league’s more unforgettable moments. Both were the fault of the weather.
The game, of course, was played right in the middle of the Second World War. Many in attendance were servicemen on leave, who took the opportunity to see the competitions two newest clubs, Canterbury and St George, fight out for the prize. However, as the rain pelted down mercilessly, the crusty toffs of the SCG Trust refused to open the gates into the empty Members Stand, thus denying the fans one of the few dry areas available. After much agitation, the fence at the eastern hill started to give way midway through the reserve grade match. The crowd simply picked up the separated fence, and began to march straight across the field into the empty Members Stand, thus holding the reserve grade game up!
As one would expect from a game played in mud, the match quickly became a brutal forward slog fest. This played directly into Canterbury’s hands, as the club fielded what has been described as the greatest club front row ever, with props Eddie Burns, Henry Porter and hooker Roy Kirkaldy. Burns was a particular favourite with Berries fans, being a local junior who held the club’s all time try scoring record for over 40 years (before it was broken by Terry Lamb). These three quickly set a solid platform, and it was a Porter pass that sent five eighth Bob Jackson through a narrow gap 25 yards out from their own line. Jackson sped across the mud like a greyhound, and outpaced St George’s Lindwall brothers in a 70 yard sprint to the line. Fullback Lin Johnson converted, and extended the lead to 7-0 soon after with a penalty goal from 35 yards out.
The Lindwalls were St George’s guns. Jack played on the wing, and found himself on the end of a sweeping backline movement that sent him over wide out with 10 minutes remaining. His brother Ray provided the brilliant conversion from the sideline. With two minutes remaining, Berries winger Edgar Newham was caught offside. Ray Lindwall landed the equaliser, and St George had nullified the big Canterbury side’s early advantage. They were valuable points, too, as the ever worsening mud continued to deteriorate
With a 7-7 halftime score, both sides were confident in the second half. However, the conditions gradually prevented St George from using their superior backs. The Canterbury forwards began to dominate possession, but Saints hung on. With 20 minutes remaining, however, St George had worked themselves deep into Canterbury’s territory. A knock on by Johnson saw a scrum pack 35 yards from the Canterbury line. Kirkaldy was penalised for a loose arm, and Ray Lindwall landed the goal. For the first time in the match, Saints were in front 9-7.
However, this lead was short lived. Dragons prop Col Montgomery was penalised for punching Burns in a scrum near his own line. It was a silly act in a game where tries were rapidly becoming impossible, and goals imperative. Johnson’s goal robbed St George of any advantage in the game, and with still 15 minutes left, the scores were tied at 9-9
With the rain still pelting down, and the SCG reduced to little more than a swamp, the crowd remained to a man as the two sides slugged it out during the last 10 minutes. Field position was vital, and Burns and Porter took it upon them to carry their side home. Sensing the urgency, however, Saints also lifted, and threw all they had at the bigger Canterbury side. The mud was everywhere, and players struggled to keep their footing, or to maintain possession. However, it was the more experienced Berries pack that worked their way toward the St George line, where they waited for something to give. With a mere two minutes left on the sodden SCG clock, their chance came.
Ten yards from his own line, Dragons hooker Herb Gilbert was penalised for a scrum infringement. Lin Johnson stepped up to the mark to take the shot for goal. He built his mound in the SCG quagmire 10 yards out, and right in front of the sticks.
With a premiership on the line, Johnson, a player who had played rep football for New South Wales, managed the worst kick of his career. As he moved into the kick, he slipped no the muddy surface, and fell over. Miraculously, his right boot connected with the ball, and in a flying shower of SCG mud and slush, the ball lazily lifted enough to scrape onto the crossbar, and amazingly, fell over the other side! Johnson lay in the mud, too embarrassed to see where the ball went, but was he opened his eyes, he saw the touch judges raise the flags for a goal. Canterbury had bagged their second premiership, 11-9. If the raised flags didn’t confirm it, the patch of mud left on the crossbar did!
Canterbury had to wait 38 years before they tasted premiership glory again. For St George, they experienced heartbreak again four years later, losing to Balmain by a point. That match turned out to be the last game of rugby league for Ray Lindwall. After that, he pursued, his other sporting passion. As a cricketer, he became one of Australia’s finest pace bowlers, and a Test captain, and one of the genuine legends of that sport.
Canterbury Bankstown 11(R Jackson try, L Johnson 4 goals)
St George 9 (J Lindwall try, R Lindwall 3 goals)
CANTERBURY: L Johnson, E Newham, R Bailey (c), R Kight, J Bonnyman, R Jackson, T Ezart, E Burns, R Kirkaldy, M Porter, R Farrar, G Elley, F Spoonberg
ST GEORGE: R Lindwall, D McRitchie, E McHugh, N Jones, J Lindwall, C Turvey, E Laurence, W McRitchie, H Gilbert, C Montgomery, L Kelly ©, A Clarke, W Collier
4. 1989 Canberra v Balmain, Sydney Football Stadium, 24th September
When The Tigers Got Raided
There are many people who believe that the 1989 grand final was the greatest game ever played. Certainly, in the way that Canberra won their maiden premiership, and took the JJ Giltinan Shield out of Sydney for the first time, the tale deserved to be preserved as a major turning point in rugby league, if not simply for the thrilling way in which it was done. Balmain were hot favourites to win their 12th title. They had narrowly lost the previous decider to Canterbury, boasted a near test strength pack, and had finished third, behind Souths and Penrith. However, fourth placed Canberra boasted 20 more tries than their nearest rival by the time the minor premiership finished. They had qualified for their second grand final in three years, and only in their eighth season.
Under their aggression loving coach Warren Ryan, Balmain looked to dominate the match with their trademark punishing defence. This allowed them top dominate early field position, and Welshman Andy Currier kicked a penalty goal after seven minutes. Only four rucks later, heavy defence forced Raiders prop Brent Todd to lose possession, and James Grant picked up the loose ball, and raced away to score in the corner. Despite Currier’s failed conversion attempt, the Tigers were up 6-0 after only 10 minutes. Going heavily on the attack, only desperate defence by Mal Meninga (on Garry Jack) and Dean Lance (on Steve Roach) kept a lid on the score. However, midway through the first half, the raiders got a slight reprieve. Paul Sironen was penalised for offside, and Meninga goaled, despite the attempts of a Balmain trainer to put him off.
The Tigers had the best of the first half, and one minute from half time, put on a champagne try. Currier burst onto a perfect pass from Roach, short of halfway. When the cover came across, he kicked infield, but Garry Belcher couldn’t take the catch. James Grant swooped on the ball, and put big Sironen over next to the posts. Grant’s easy conversion took Balmain to a half-time lead of 12-2. Long time Tiger fans were not ignorant to the fact that Balmain had amassed the club’s biggest ever half time lead in a grand final.
However, Canberra had been unlucky not to score themselves at times in the first half. Their luck changed when they grabbed possession deep in the Tigers territory when Bruce Maguire was caught for shepherding. Ricky Stuart found John Ferguson out wide, whose darting run set up Gary Belcher. Belcher stood up Currier with ease and scored. Meninga’s goal reduced the score to 12-8
Balmain had their chances, but just failed to seal victory. Mick Neil was ankle tapped by Meninga, and tacked when in space. Later, Wayne Pearce dropped the ball when only a pass to the unmarked Tim Brasher would have put him over. The Tigers were amassing a 2-12 penalty count against them, and began to tire. With 15 minutes left, coach Ryan looked to freshen up his pack, and replaced Test prop Roach with Kevin Hardwicke. Hardwicke was a noted defender, but the Raiders forwards noted the absence of Balmain’s chief enforcer, and rose a notch in confidence.
Currier scored another penalty goal with 10 minutes to go. At 14-8, Balmain had a six point lead. Ben Elias had two attempts to make it seven with a field goal. Meninga charged down the first, and the second, from 10 metres out and right in front, hit the crossbar, and bounced back into the field of play. Still, the Tigers hung on, and so did Canberra. Something had to give, and with five minutes left, it did. Ryan replaced the Tigers test second rower, Paul Sironen with Michael Pobjie. Another enforcer was gone.
With a last-ditch effort, Canberra camped inside Balmain’s territory, waiting for a chance. It came with just 90 seconds left. Garry Jack failed to take a Chris O’Sullivan kick, and Laurie Daley regathered five meters out. He then lobbed a pass over to Ferguson, who had come infield on instinct. ‘Chicka’, who had tasted defeat with Newtown in 1981, jinked and weaved his way through the Balmain pack, and scored under the posts. Meninga’s goal brought the score’s level at 14 all. Canberra had come back from the brink.
For the third time in history, extra time was needed. Canberra were on a roll, and Balmain were down. Garry Jack knocked on close to his own line after six minutes, and from the ensuing scrum, O’Sullivan landed a field goal. Canberra took the lead 15-14, and settled down to grind Balmain out of the match.
Right at the end of the first extra period, Balmain were forced to do a goal line drop, after Brasher had touched a ball in flight that went dead. Ricky Stuart took the catch 45 meters out, and launched a field goal attempt. It just missed.
The Tigers, however, still had some fight left. Wayne Pearce made a desperate break, but to no avail. A few moments later, the Tiger’s last gasp saw Brasher storm into space, but the defence closed before support could arrive.
With three minutes left, Currier tried to grubber past the defence close to his own line. Meninga gathered the ball, and passed to replacement forward Steve Jackson. In what was by far the most memorable burst in an otherwise forgettable career, the fresh Jackson charged at the line from 20 metres out, and carried four desperate defenders over the line for the match winning try. In scenes of great emotion, Canberra had won, 19-14.
Canberra 19 (G Belcher, J Ferguson, S Jackson tries, M Meninga 3 goals, C O’Sullivan field goal)
Balmain 14 ( J Grant, P Sironen tries, A Currier 3 goals)
CANBERRA: G Belcher, M Wood, M Meninga (c), L Daley, J Ferguson, C O’Sullivan, R Stuart, B Todd, S Walters, G Lazarus, D Lance, G Coyne, B Clyde. SUBS: P Martin, K Walters, S Jackson
BALMAIN: G Jack, S O’Brien, T Brasher, A Currier, J Grant, M Neil, G Freeman, S Roach, B Elias, S Edmed, P Sironen, B McGuire, W Pearce (c), SUBS: K Hardwicke, M Pobjie, S Edwards
3. 1965 St George v South Sydney, Sydney Cricket Ground, 17th September
Legendary Crowd, Legendary Teams, Legendary Result
Wherever you stand on the great argument on whether the game, and its players were better in days gone by, or in the present, it’s hard to deny this game’s place in history. It may well go down as the greatest day in domestic Australian Rugby League history. It certainly must be rated as the pinnacle moment in unlimited tackle football. For on this day the ground record was set at the Sydney Cricket Ground (78,056), St George set the all time record for consecutive premierships for any code of football (10), Norm Provan set the premiership record for the most grand final appearances (10), and the NSWRL made a record profit from the match to boot! The day started out as most other grand finals did: with a huge line up at the SGC gates not long after dawn. In fact, many of them had gathered there the night before, wrapped up in blankets and leaning on eskies and picnic baskets. The promise of the all conquering Saints up against a young, brilliant South Sydney side, who had won both encounters 14-4 and 17-8, attracted so many fans that the gates were closed at 1.00pm by police. Many thousands were stranded outside, and, despite police warnings, began to clamber onto the rooftops of the grandstands. Some even climbed the four storey high pavilions in the adjoining showgrounds . In fact, by kick-off, police estimated that a further 20,000 people were perched atop the old structures of Moore Park, taking their lives in their hands!
In the dressing rooms, Saints captain Norm Provan settled himself for the record breaking task at hand. After having faced it all on nine previous occasions, he still faced the pre match butterflies. He was later to admit that he wondered how long the golden run could go on. Souths had beaten them twice already in 1965. Was this the day the bubble would burst?
Souths were eager to get as many points as they could get. They opened scoring with a brilliant penalty goal from halfway by Kevin Longbottom. Soon after, Provan, George Evans and Reg Gasnier combined to put Billy Smith over out wide. Greame Langlands missed the conversion from the sideline, but landed a penalty goal only a few minutes later for Saints to lead 5-2.
St George’s premiership successes had been won on a foundation of their forwards’ brutality. Souths, however, matched them this day. This made for a very entertaining first half, as the young Rabbitohs, John O’Neill, John Sattler and Ron Coote gave back as good as they got. Star Saints lock John Raper sustained a broken thumb, but played on. Referee Col Pearce barely managed to keep the lid on the burgeoning war on the field, which was only relieved when Souths were awarded another penalty on halfway, on the stroke of half time. Longbottom set up the shot for goal, and hit a magnificent kick which sailed straight between the posts, and almost out of the ground.
The kick was estimated to have travelled 70 yards on the fly! At half-time, Saints were up 5-4, but the kick had lifted Souths spirits.
As John Raper get his thumb strapped in the dressing rooms at half time, police were having trouble moving masses of fans off the ground back into the squash of people behind the fence. This actually delayed the second half kick off. However, once on the field, Langlands decided to make up for lost time, and kicked off before Souths were ready. Big John O’Neill knocked on, and gave St George valuable field position deep inside Souths half. The more experienced Dragons’ pack kept the play there and frustrated Souths. A penalty for a Rabbitoh infringement in the play the ball saw Langlands land an easy goal for a 7-4 lead.
Desperate to get out of trouble, Souths’ winger Mike Cleary dashed out of dummy half and kicked downfield, finding touch 30 yards away. Souths won the ensuing scrum, and they sent the ball out wide to Bob Moses, who put a desperate kick in towards the St George in-goal. Raper was there to clean him up, but so was a flying Cleary, who swamped him with a brilliant tackle. That forced a goal line drop out, and left Cleary hurt. But now Souths had the field position.
With 20 minutes to go, another penalty on halfway saw Longbottom with his third long range attempt at goal. The kick, again, was sweet, and the crowd rose to applaud his display. Souths were now only a point behind at 7-6. However, soon after, Saints were awarded a penalty in a similar position. Langlands took the shot, and ever the champion, answered Longbottom’s challenge with his own towering long range goal. Again the crowd roared it’s approval. At 9-6 in front, Saints decided it was time. But Souths weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel just yet.
The Dragons decided to give the ball some air, and Reg Gasnier ended up in a huge gap with no one on front. However, a brilliant cover tackle from Ron Coote brought him to ground short of the line. A few minutes later, Coote repeated his brilliant effort with a try saver on Billy Smith. However, the superior talent of St George was starting to show. Second rower Elton Rasmussen put John King through a gap, and the flying winger raced 20 yards to score in the corner. It was the 6th consecutive grand final that he had scored in. Langlands missed the conversion, but at 12-6, Saints looked comfortable
With 11 minutes remaining, Souths got a penalty from close range. Eric Simms put the ball over, and at 12-8, Souths were a converted try away from the premiership. They steeled themselves for one final effort. However, Saints also steeled themselves for the onslaught. The final 11 minutes were frustrating for Souths. despite pounding the Dragons line, it held firm. Kevin Ryan, Brian Clay and Raper were unmoveable in defence, and with on the back of Ian Walsh’s 11-6 dominance in the scrums, Saints claimed their 10th premiership.
Norm Provan was chaired from the field for the last time. Amid a sea of fans who had spilled out onto the ground, he lifted the J. J. Giltinan Shield, and set off with his team on the lap of honour for the 10th time. It is doubtful that anyone will ever achieve that feat again.
St George 12 (W Smith, J King tries, G Langlands 3 goals)
South Sydney 8 (K Longbottom 3, E. Simms goals)
ST GEORGE: G Langlands, E Lumsden, R Gasnier, W Smith, J King, B Clay, G Evans, K Ryan, I Walsh (c), R Gourley, N Provan (c), E Rasmussen, J Raper
SOUTH SYDNEY: K Longbottom, E Simms, A Branighan, R Moses, M Cleary, J Lisle (c), I Jones, J O’Neill, F Anderson, J Morgan, J Sattler, R McCarthy, R Coote
2. 1997 Newcastle v Manly Warringah, Sydney Football Stadium, 27th September
When The Knights Saved Rugby League
Sometimes in the darkest hour, comes the greatest ray of light. This game came in an extremely dark hour, and shone like a beacon It had been three years since rugby league had greedily torn itself apart. Court cases, massive player payments, lies, deceit and treachery was rife in the game on a global scale. Super League had arrived, and ripped the code apart at the seams. Where there were 20 teams looking forward to a brilliant future in March, 1995 had turned into a bitter war by August 1997, and the fans stayed away in droves.
Well, not everywhere. Newcastle, the club that had jumped aboard a Paul Harragon hired mini bus to sign with the ARL two years previously, had moulded into a very strong outfit. They needed to be, as the giant BHP steel mill, the lifeblood of the city, was closing it’s doors, and the coal fields that fed it were engrossed in a long running union battle. The Knights were the one shining light, and the city responded. In this time of despair, the team gelled, and made it’s first grand final.
Their opponents were reigning premiers Manly, the team everyone loved to hate. Newcastle had never beaten Manly in their 10 year history. As a result, Manly were hot favourites to win premiership number seven. This didn’t concern the Knights fans, however. What did concern them was the midweek revelation that star halfback Andrew Johns would be playing with a hole in his lung! Manly doctor Nathan Gibbs came out in the press saying that ‘Joey’ could die if he played. The fans responded in the best way they could to Gibbs’ comments. In a magnificent gesture, crowds came out to line the route of the team bus as it sped toward Sydney on the F3 freeway. Fans as far south as Gosford cheered the bus, as the players inside were moved at such a gesture. That night, captain Paul ‘Chief’ Harragon made a promise to his players. Reasoning that ‘you never get sent off in grand finals’ he promised to make Manly pay for the years of defeats and taunts that they had suffered, buy brutalising them in every tackle.
From the opening whistle, Chief Harragon and his pack did exactly that. They brutalised Manly’s forwards near Test strength forwards, and it seemed that they were getting on top. But the class of Manly had shone out through it all, and John Hopoate scored out wide to open the Sea Eagles account. With rookie fullback Shannon Nevin on song as goal kicker, Manly raced to a 16-0 lead, through tries by Steve Menzies and Nevin. An Andrew Johns goal brought the score to 16-2.
After 30 minutes, it looked like the floodgates were about to open. But the Knights pack stuck to their brutality doctrine. Inspirational Manly captain Geoff Toovey was the main target. A small man who loved paying up front, Toovey was knocked out twice, the second time in a sickening incident when Knights winger Adam McDougall stomped on his head in a play the ball. The referee presumed was accidental, in a probably accurate decision, but the Manly fans were outraged. Their outrage did not stop when the Knights finally got on the board shortly before half time. Andrew and Matthew Johns combined to put flying fullback Robbie O’Davis over. As O’Davis celebrated, Andrew Johns converted, and the half-time score was Manly 16-8.
Newcastle started the second half in the same vein as the first, and Manly again looked to weather the storm. However, a penalty conceded deep in their territory gave Andrew Johns a shot right in front, and suddenly it was 16-10. The Knights were pegging back Manly’s big lead, and had scored 10 unanswered points. They lifted their intensity. The game developed into an arm wrestle as the two big packs fought for field position. Manly arrested the scoring for 20 minutes, but as the game wore on Harragon realised that his sides brutal approach was taking it’s toll on the Sea Eagles. The Knights kept up the intensity, knowing that a converted try would bring them level. The tiring Manly pack dug in.
Manly’s forwards had worked the ball close to the posts, and Cliff Lyons had a field goal attempt. The shot, from only 10 metres out, sailed wide. With 10 minutes to go, Matthew Johns probed close to the line, and found O’Davis, as usual, in support. O’Davis jinked and weaved, and dived for the line. He crashed into the post, but rebounded over the line. ‘Joey’ couldn’t wait to take the kick, which he banged over from right in front. Newcastle had come back from the brink to put 16 unanswered points on. With 10 minutes to go, both sides were locked at 16-all.
Two minutes later, Matthew Johns was the first to take the attempt at field goal. From 10 metres out, and under heavy pressure of a charge down by Manly backrower Nik Kosef, the ball hit the upright, and Lyons fell on it. Manly breathed a sigh of relief. With a seemingly last ditch effort, their big forwards Mark Carroll, Niel Tierney, Menzies and Kosef worked the ball out of danger, but the side was tiring badly, and it wasn’t long before Newcastle regained possession in good field position.
The Knights pack then worked the ball back downfield. With two minutes to go, and looking the stronger side, prop Tony Butterfield knocked on 30 metres out. He hung his head, in the belief that their last chance was lost. Manly won the ensuing scrum, but could not hold possession. On halfway, with 90 seconds left, Newcastle regained possession.
It took 75 agonising seconds before the ball was worked close to the Manly line. With 17 seconds left, the ball was passed to Matthew Johns. He believed that it was the very last play. At 10 metres out, and right in front, he dropped the ball into his right foot, and launched the field goal attempt but it was charged down. The ball bounced back and the tackle count restarted. Winger Darren Albert, hopelessly out of position, had fallen on it. The hooter had not sounded, so Matthew Johns quickly repositioned himself for another snap attempt.
Albert couldn’t play the ball quick enough. There was only one problem. Andrew Johns was dummy half, and in a split second of madness, didn’t pass the ball to his brother. Instead, he ran blind, and found that Hopoate, the marker, had gone in to try and cut off the kick. Andrew Johns then calmly drew the defence, and passed to Albert, who ran through the gap, past a disbelieving Cliff Lyons, and scored under the posts. Manly had led for all but the last six seconds. Newcastle were premiers.
The welcome the Knights received in Newcastle was so raucous that it outranked Adelaide’s reaction to their maiden AFL premiership, in a city five times Newcastle’s size. For a code left struggling with the pain of Super League, the win was a much needed shot in the arm. Soon after, the game reunited, with Newcastle as worthy premiers.
Newcastle 20 (O’Davis 2, Albert tries, A Johns 4 goals)
Manly 16 (Hopoate, Nevin, Menzies tries, Nevin 2 goals)
NEWCASTLE: R O’Davis, D Albert, A MacDougall, O Craigie, M Hughes, M Johns, A Johns, A Butterfield, B Peden, P Harragon (c), W Richards, A Muir, M Glanville. SUBS: T Fletcher, S Conley, L Jackson, S Crowe
MANLY: S Nevin, D Moore, C Innes, T Hill, J Hopoate, G Toovey (c), C Field, D Gillespie, A Colella, M Carroll, S Menzies, D Gartner, N Kosef. SUBS: N Tierney, S Fulton, C Lyons, A Hunter
1. 1977 St George v Parramatta, Sydney Cricket Ground, 17th September
The Greatest Game Of All
Geoff Greenwood, editor of Australian Rugby League’s Greatest Games (Murray Publishers, Sydney, 1979) called this match ‘The game of the Century’. Despite 22 years of thrilling matches since then, if we take a step away from the most recent memories that seem to dominate one’s mind, it is hard to argue that his assessment of the 1977 Grand Final is wrong. The first drawn decider, the first extra time, and a bumper crowd made a great game all the more special. The more experienced Parramatta side went in as favourites against a young, enthusiastic Dragons outfit. However, it was St George that came out firing on all guns in the first half. Led by a particularly brutal defensive display by ‘Rocket’ Rod Reddy, the Dragon pack dominated field position in the first half. With tiny half Mark Shulman making much ground through the bigger Eels pack, Saints were on a roll. ‘Lord’ Ted Goodwin had landed two penalty goals, looked to take a handy 4-0 lead, but right on the stroke of half-time, he put a neat chip kick in on halfway. The ball landed near Parra’s lanky fullback Phil Mann, but before he could control it, Goodwin kicked again into open space, leaving Mann clutching at this air. A foot race ensued between Goodwin and the Eels backs Ed Sulkowicz and Greame Atkins, as the ball dribbled under the uprights. Goodwin launched himself at the ball, and grounded it just short of the dead ball line, knocking himself out in the process. He had just kicked the ball 50 metres and beaten everybody to it, in one of the greatest individual tries seem in a decider. Graham Chapman converted the goal, and although he took no further part in the match, Lord Ted had given saints a very handy 9-0 lead at the break.
Saints were quick to pick up where they left off after the break, and spared no energy in their continued brutal defence. Reddy in particular seemed to be targeting Eel lock Ray Price, and gave away some early penalties as a result. This played into Parramatta’s hands, as their main strike weapon in his first season with the club, Mick Cronin, took the penalties, and converted them into points. His 3 pressure goals gradually brought Parra back to 9-6, and back in the game. The battered Eels pack dug in, and Saints began to tire from their whirlwind start. As the clock ticked down, however, they hung on, and hung on. Then the Eels struck.
With three minutes to go, Parra had grafted their way deep into Dragon Territory. They spun the ball wide to Cronin, who did what he was to become famous for on the ensuing decade. He drew 3 crucial defenders out wide and still managed to slip the ball to Price, only 5 yards away from the line. Price surged through the gap, put on a desperate sidestep, and an equally desperate pass to Sulkowicz, who crashed over in the Paddington corner. 65,000 eyes then trained on Cronin, as he lined up the conversion.
Mick Cronin had been bought to do this very thing: kick the Eels to a maiden premiership. He took his time over the kick, and then moved in. With the scores locked a 9-9, and 1 minute left on the clock, the ball sailed wide. Saints tried a shallow kick off, which was taken by Parra. Two rucks later, the hooter sounded. For the first time ever, a grand final had been drawn at full-time. For the first time ever, 10 minutes extra time each way would be played.
This was totally uncharted waters. From this point on, neither coach, captain, players, trainers or officials had any sort of game plan. Nowadays, the importance of a field goal in such situations is well known. But in 1977, both sides, bloodied and weary after 80 gruelling minutes could only thing of scoring tries. Saints appeared gone, and Parra started extra time with more enthusiasm. However, the pressure of winning the clubs first premiership was considerable. Prop Graham Olling made a break close to the line, but failed to pass to an unmarked Ron Hilditch. Parra had the better of the first extra period, but after 10 minutes, Saints had still held them to 9-9
The Dragons took strength from this, and the pendulum started swinging their way. Players from both sides had begun to drop like flies due to leg cramps and exhaustion. Play was stopped constantly as trainers worked overtime to keep their sides on their feet. It was St George who realised the importance of the field goal, and Shulman and centre John Chapman both had unsuccessful attempts. With three minutes to go, Tony Quirk had an attempt, which hit the upright and bounced back into the field of play.
Parra regained possession, but with three minutes to travel 90 yards, the task was beyond them. A St George knock on with a minute to go saw a scrum pack 35 yards out from the Parramatta line, near the sideline. John Kolc fed the scrum, but was penalised by referee Gocher for an incorrect feed. In the days before the differential scrum penalty, Saints captain Steven Edge called Quirk over to take the kick. On the sideline, coach Harry Bath screamed to Edge to give Chapman the kick instead. So it was Chapman who lined up the kick, like Cronin 20 minutes earlier, to break the 9-9 deadlock, and snare the premiership. With 65,000 pairs of eyes trained on him like hawks, he launched into the kick. The ball sailed wide. After 100 minutes of play, the longest ever game of rugby league had ended in a draw.
The rest of this story is now history. Saints met at a team barbecue, and resolved to not let the chance slip away from them in the replay. They had no hope of knowing the drama that was unfolding at Parramatta. In the Eels dressing room, Olling showed his club doctor bite marks on his back. Ray Price’s face was bloodied and bruised. It was as if Rod Reddy had used him as a punching bag, according to the Eels tough as teak skipper Ray Higgs. Higgs wanted to return fire in the replay, and with the backing of the team, he approached coach Terry Fearnley, a noted advocate of fair play. Fearnley refused to allow his players licence to retaliate, and stood his ground as the players, one by one, reluctantly agreed to abide by his wishes. The replay saw Saints again play it as tough, and it worked. Parra were never in the game, and Saints claimed their 14th premiership, their first since their run of 11 straight, with a 22-0 win. It had only taken them 180 minutes to do so!
St George 9 (Goodwin try, Goodwin 2, Chapman goals)
Parramatta 9 (Sulkowicz try, Cronin 3 goals)
ST GEORGE: E Goodwin, B Butler, G Quinn, R Finch, J Chapman, R McGregor, M Shulman, C Young, S Edge (c), B Starkey, J Jansen, R Stone, R Reddy. SUBS: J Bailey, A Quirk
PARRAMATTA: P Mann, J Porter, M Cronin, E Sulkowicz, G Atkins, M Levy, J Kolc, J Baker, R Hilditch, G Olling, G Gerard, R Higgs (c), R Price. SUBS: D Fitzgerald, J Peard