When the Grand Final was King

the_greatest_ever_grandfinal_raiders_tigers_split_jersey

I complained last year that we have only had one Grand Final in the last 12 years with two likable teams involved* and while all five of the “hateable” teams made the finals, last weekend’s results saw four of them lose and two of them eliminated as a result (a massive win for Rugby League) so it seems we may actually be in with a chance of having a good Grand Final again.

Having popular teams in the finals is an issue for the league, and not for the obvious reasons of ratings etc. In my opinion it is one of the main contributors to the perception that has crept in over the last decade that Origin is the pinnacle of the game. By the time the Grand Final rolls around, nobody cares who wins. Not because their team is out, but because the teams that ARE there are so often detestable.

Growing up however, the Grand Final was everything. Winning the competition was the pinnacle of the game and that was unquestioned. My team had won the competition more than any other and it had been a while between drinks but we were surely due again any time soon.

So with this thought in mind, I want to celebrate the greatest Grand Final that the competition has ever seen; the 1989 decider between Balmain and Canberra. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the game that is the undisputed best Grand Final ever**, and it is worth celebrating the wonderful match that it was. But before we do that, there is another story to be told in the lead up that is close to my heart.

It had been 18 years since South Sydney, the league’s most successful team, had won their last Grand Final and by the mid-point of the 89 season, they were riding on what would end up being a 12 match winning streak and were leading the competition. This was going to be their year. By the end of the regular season they were 5 points clear on top of the table and near certainties to break the drought. After a first up loss in round one of the season, they had lost only 2 matches in their next 21 with both of those losses coming against quality opposition in fellow finalists, Penrith and Cronulla. They had the best defence in the league, as the only team averaging less than 10 points conceded per match, and as the old saying goes, attack wins matches, defence wins premierships.

The finals format back then was such that only the top 5 teams made it and there was a major reward for the Minor Premiership winners. In the first week of the finals 4th played 5th with the loser being eliminated and 2nd played 3rd with the loser playing the winner of the other match and the winner playing the Minor Premiers. In the Minor Premiers’ first match, they can win and go straight through to the grand final or lose and still get a second shot. So for the Minor Premiers to win the competition, they only had to win 2 matches.

Not only that, but If you finished in either 4th or 5th, you needed to win 4 consecutive sudden death matches to win the Grand Final. The difference between 1st and 4th was enormous. Especially compared to now, where they play each other and the loser gets a second chance while the winner (even if it is the 4th placed team) assumes all of the benefits that the Minor Premiers would have gotten. Just like the upstart Panthers have done this season.

215630-george-piggins

But I digress. The Rabbitohs got to sit back and watch week one of the finals as the streaking Raiders*** demolished a tired Sharks outfit who had to win a mid-week playoff with Brisbane (after finishing in equal fifth) just to get to the finals. In the other match, Souths got the result they wanted. The only team that they hadn’t beaten at all that year – The Panthers – had been beaten by the third placed Tigers. They were the biggest threat to ending the drought and the Tigers had done Souths a favour and taken them out of the equation.

So of course this set up a clash between Balmain and South Sydney for a direct line to the Grand Final. In their only meeting of the season, the Rabbitohs had prevailed 10-8 in a tight contest and that game was played at Leichhardt, where the Tigers  only lost twice all season. This is significant, because Balmain’s home form is what carried them to their 3rd place finish. Their away form left a lot to be desired. They only won 5 of their 11 matches outside of Leichhardt Oval and the fact that this game would be played at the SFS was a significant factor to tip the scales even further in South Sydney’s favour^.

The one thing that the Tigers did have on their side was finals experience. They had made the Grand Final the season before only to be belted out of it when Terry Lamb took on Ellery Hanley early in the match. So it was with this battle hardened mentality that they used experience to outpoint the Minor Premiers in a 20-10 victory that gave them a chance to make up for the previous season.

In the other match, the Panthers had been bounced out of the finals in straight sets as the young and talented Green Machine began to gather momentum for another tilt at the title with a 27-18 win. The Raiders had made the Grand Final in 1987 but lost to Manly, who were the dominant side that season and on the day. Since then, the emergence of two future superstars had begun with halfback Ricky Stuart and (at the time) centre Laurie Daley – both in their first full season in the top grade – beginning to take centre stage along with the already established stars like Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher and Brad Clyde in Canberra.

So the Final match to see who would join the Tigers in the big one at the end of the season was set up between the surging Raiders and the beaten Bunnies. With four rounds to go, the Raiders weren’t even in the top 5, and from their final position of fourth they had a chance to go to the Grand Final with one more win over the competition’s best team. But this wasn’t going to be easy.

The Raiders had been comfortably beaten on the two occasions that they had faced the Rabbitohs during the season, and in spite of having the best attack in the competition (averaging 21 points per game) they had only managed 14 total points in the two full games, including being held try-less by the Bunnies for the only occasion in their whole season.

When my Dad told me that he had gotten us tickets to the game, I was immensely excited. It was the biggest game the club had played in since I was born (granted, I was only 8) and I couldn’t wait for that Sunday afternoon to come.

We had great seats. On about the 20 metre line, and to my father’s delight, we were directly behind the Raiders Cheergirls. To his further delight, the ladies got quite a workout that day.^^ The Canberra attack found its way through the Bunnies’ famously strong defence to the point that it completely ruined South Sydney to its core^^^. The final score line of 32-16 doesn’t tell the full story. Canberra were dominant from start to finish. The three tries that the Rabbitohs scored were all by forwards as the backline was completely shut down. The game was over with 20 minutes to go. With 10 minutes to go Dad asked if we could leave early to beat the traffic. I was a depressed 8 year old and agreed. As we left the stadium another cheer went up. I knew it was the Raiders who had scored and my shoulders slumped a little more. “What is wrong with you?” he asked me. Bewildered I looked back up at him and all I could say was “Souths lost!” His reply of “Was there a game on?” went over my head at first. Then I remembered the cheerleaders that he had spent the whole day enjoying.

Tigersdefence

So the Grand Finalists were decided. The 3rd placed Tigers and the 4th placed Raiders. Never before in the history of the league had neither the first or second placed team made the Grand Final. On top of this, Canberra had never won the competition before and Balmain hadn’t won in 20 years. Due to this there was genuine excitement about the Grand Final – regardless of who was going to win.

There used to be a saying about Rugby League Grand Finals that ‘you have to lose one to win one’ meaning that you simply can’t win a Grand Final on your first go. You need to have the experience of Grand Final day, and Grand Final week for that matter, under your belt before you can win a title. Losing that first grand final not only prepares you and the club for what is needed to win, but the crushing feeling at the end of the match which regularly sees grown men crying gives you extra motivation. The Tigers had been there the previous year and the Raiders the year before that. They were both ready, and both (kind of) unexpected to be there just a few weeks earlier.

Canberra were on a roll with an outrageously exciting backline, while the Tigers had an absolutely world class forward pack. It wasn’t so much a clash of styles, as a test of which was more important. The media and bookies thought that the Tigers forward pack would be enough to stop the young Raiders backline.

As the game unfolded, the Raiders took the upper hand and looked the most likely, though their inexperience began to show as they struggled to turn that into points. This was all the invitation that the Tigers needed. Against the run of play, the Tigers scored an intercept try through their rugby convert winger Brent Todd. They then pushed further ahead with a wonderful try to deserving Test Second Rower Paul Sironen. At half time Balmain led 12-2 and the bookies looked to have been right to not trust the inexperience of the flashy Canberra side against hard headed power in Balmain and the coaching of old head Warren Ryan.

This part was important too. Tim Sheens was coming off a 4 year stint as the head coach of the Panthers, that saw them make the finals just once – admittedly for the first time in their history, but one finals in 4 season is not a successful stint by many measures. His first season in Canberra saw him inherit a team that had made the Grand Final the previous season, take them to a 3rd place finish and to be bundled out of the finals with two consecutive losses. Even with a few weeks to go in the season, the Raiders had not been guaranteed a finals place and it was only this outstanding run of form that saw them reach the Grand Final. A lot of people were not convinced of Sheens’ credentials as a top level coach. Many still aren’t.

On the other hand Warren Ryan was coaching in his 5th grand final of the previous 6 years and his 6th Grand Final of his career. Balmain was the third club he had coached at and the third club he had taken to a Grand Final. He was considered a bit of a modern coaching marvel at the time. Even if you were impressed by Sheens as a coach, there was simply no way that you could rate him higher than Ryan.

Canberra had played well, they just didn’t seem able to translate that into points. Some calm half time words from Sheens appeared to have worked. They came out for the second half as a more composed side and got themselves on the board through the evergreen Chicka Ferguson finding Gary Belcher in some space to score their first try and narrow the gap. But the Tigers were not going to go quietly into the night and they stepped up their efforts. Speedster Mick Neil went agonizingly close to scoring, being stopped short by a lunging ankle tap from Mal Meninga, and when Wayne Pearce dropped the ball cold with an open try line in front of him, the man they called The Wok decided that the footballing gods had made up their minds and were simply not going to let them score again. So he had to defend the slim lead that his Tigers had built.

In what has now become the most controversial coaching decision in a Grand Final since the white boots in 1975, Warren Ryan decided to pull his test forwards, Steve Roach and Paul Sironen, from the field. He sent on fresh legs to simply tackle their way to the win. Elias was charged with getting the field goal needed to put the match beyond doubt, and after he had his first attempt charged down, he took his second shot. It never looked solid, but seemed as though it might just have the legs to get there. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it hit the cross bar and came back out. Regardless, the defensive tactic almost worked. With just 90 seconds to go, the Tigers were still in the lead. Then the ball was given to the transcendent Ferguson. In the biggest play of his career, Chicka got the ball on the left side from Daley with Tigers defenders pouring across the field to cover. With a succession of left foot steps in side, Ferguson not only scored, but scored close to the posts, to enable a simple conversion for Meninga to level the scores and send the game to extra time.

This is where the decision to replace Roach and Sironen really backfired. Under the interchange rules back then, they were not allowed to come back onto the field for extra time, now that the team needed the attacking impetus that those two were so famous for.

Siro

The momentum that Canberra finished regulation time with was always going to transfer into extra time, and when Garry Jack knocked on two minutes into extra time, the game was as good as over. From the ensuing scrum, Canberra Five Eighth Chris O’Sullivan kicked the field goal to put the Raiders ahead for the first time in the match. The sides battled back and forth and with just a few minutes remaining, Raiders replacement Steve Jackson showed a feat of strength fitting of Lou Ferrigno. He got the ball 15 metres out from the try line, beat two defenders and then carried three further defenders for almost ten metres as he willed himself over the line to put the match beyond doubt and deliver the first ever title to the nation’s capital.

No write up could really explain the greatness of the match and the buzz that came all the way through to the televisions that day. If there is any justice in the world, Foxtel will be showing replays of this game in the week leading up to the Grand Final and I urge you all to watch it if you get the chance.

The Raiders went on to win the Grand Final again in 1990, lose it in 1991 and then win it again in 1994, all under the eye of Tim Sheens, with that same core of players. Sheens parlayed that into an unsuccessful stint as the Head Coach of the North Queensland Cowboys, and then another title in 2005 with his nemesis from that fateful day, the Tigers, and is now the coach of the Australian national team.

canberra-patrick-riviere-getty-images-

Warren Ryan on the other hand did not go on to much further success. The following season the Tigers scraped into the finals in a playoff and went no further and Ryan moved on to Wests where he again scraped into the finals for a couple of seasons, then guided them to a couple of 13th place finishes. He then left coaching for a few short seasons before coming back and leading the Knights to a couple of semi-final series losses#. He never coached in a Grand Final again and eventually moved into a commentary role for radio which he was recently fired from in a storm of controversy over allegedly racist remarks. His career essentially took a slow downhill slide after this match, and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had he not made those changes late in the game.

So as we mark 25 years since the greatest grand final, let’s all hold our breath and hope for another one this year. At the very least, let’s hope we don’t all hate both of the teams that make it.

*The one is obviously the 2005 Grand Final. The only Grand Final I have actually attended in my life.

** You want proof? It is the only pre Super League Grand Final to have its own Wikipedia link as I write this. If that’s not proof, then there probably isn’t any. So there isn’t any.

***They won their last 5 games of the season to finish in 4th spot. Their last loss? Souths.

^Funnily though, Souths’ form at home wasn’t THAT great, with all of their (admittedly few) losses for the season coming at the SFS.

^^Dad is a Newtown fan, and while he does follow Souths now as a default, at the time, he wasn’t particularly bothered by who won or lost

^^^Seriously. This is no exaggeration. Souths finished last the following season, and didn’t even make the finals again until 2007 – a full 18 years later – while picking up 4 wooden spoons along the way!

#This may have been a little more impressive had the Knights not won the competition the very season after he left and 2 seasons prior to his arrival. As it stands, he may have been holding them back.

The Curious Case of the Dirty Reds

Image

On January 9th 1908 the second Sydney Rugby League team was created. Before the Tigers were formed at Balmain Town Hall, before the Rabbitohs gathered in Redfern, and before Paddington Town Hall announced that the Eastern Suburbs Region would participate in the newly formed competition, the Glebe District Rugby League Football Club was formed.

They would fall by the way side in less than 25 years, like so many other teams both before and after them, but none has quite the unique story that the Dirty Reds do.

Growing up, I didn’t have avenues such as Wikipedia, or even the internet, to allow me to research all of the topics I found interesting. The internet wasn’t a big thing until around the time I finished High School. Wikipedia didn’t exist until 3 years after I finished High School and it didn’t reach a total of 1 million articles until 8 years after I finished High School (there’s currently over 4 times that many articles on Wikipedia). Consequently, I am still catching up on all the things I would have wasted my youth learning about* and in researching my highly indulgent last article, I finally got a chance to look into the early days of the NSWRL.

My vague childhood memories of those early teams included Glebe, as well as Cumberland, Newcastle, Annandale and University. But in my mind they were all there in 1908, were all rubbish and in turn all left the comp within the first few years. That description is accurate for some of the clubs, but for Glebe I was well off the mark.

Cumberland won a single game in their history and left the competition after just one season. Newcastle, lasted a total of 20 matches over 2 seasons with a winning percentage of 45%. Annandale weren’t there from the very beginning (joining in 1910) but somehow managed to last for 11 seasons in spite of winning only 25 of their 153 matches, including 2 entirely winless seasons. University started in 1920 and astoundingly got through 18 seasons that included 12 wooden spoons. They had one small spot of success in 1926 when they finished as runners up, but followed it up by finishing in last place the following season. They have the record for most consecutive losses in NSWRL/NRL history with  42 and they in fact only won 2 games in their last 4 seasons in the competition**

Those are the other folded teams of the Pre-WWII era. You can probably understand why I had lumped them all in together as a bunch of awful teams that the competition was better off without.

Then there’s Glebe.

They obviously participated in the first season back in 1908, sitting in a three way tie for first position on the ladder heading in the final game of the season against next door neighbours Balmain. They lost that final match and finished the season in third. For some reason the finals format that season had them playing the first placed Rabbitohs in a knockout semi-final, whilst the second placed Roosters got to play 4th placed North Sydney. Glebe had beaten Eastern Suburbs (11-5) in their only encounter of the season – and it was the only game that the Roosters lost all year. Unfortunately the Dirty Reds were not good enough to beat South Sydney and missed out on a place in the first ever Grand Final, but if it weren’t for this scheduling quirk, they may have played at the Agricultural Showground at Moore Park on the last Saturday of August 1908.

The following 2 years saw Glebe drop off into 5th place on both occasions, but 1911 was a big year as they finished the regular season with the minor premiership after 11 wins and 3 losses as well as both the league’s best attack and defence. This was due in no small part to the emergence of the teenage sensation and one of the greatest players ever to play the game – Frank Burge.

Image

Burge made his Rugby League debut for Glebe that year as a 16 year old Second Rower. Think about that. A 16 year old second rower. He scored 7 tries that season, but what’s even more amazing is that he had switched codes at the start of the year from Rugby Union – where he started playing first grade two years earlier at age 14! Burge was named on the bench in the Rugby League Team of the Century in 2008 and he was quite simply a phenomenon.

Burge turned 17 about a month before Glebe took on Eastern Suburbs in the Grand Final that year and it took another great of the game – Dally Messenger – to deny Glebe their first ever Premiership win.

In 1912 Glebe were denied their chance for revenge. They finished the year in second place behind the Roosters however the rules were changed so that the team that finished the season on top of the ladder were declared the Premiers automatically and a final was only to be played if two teams finished on equal points. If this had been in place the season before, Glebe would have been the Premiers.

1913 saw Glebe slip to 4th place (which is still respectable, and downright outstanding compared to the other teams mentioned in this article) in the league, but managed to win the City Cup, a tournament played at seasons end, to give them their first real silverware.

1915 was the real emergence of Frank Burge as Glebe finished the season in second place again and the now 20 year old forward finished the season as the top try scorer with 20 tries – in just 14 games.

1916 saw Glebe finish 1 point off top spot with by far the league’s best attack as Frank Burge continued to grow into the statistical anomaly that defined his career, this season scoring 22 tries in the 14 games played.

1918 had Frank Burge breaking his own try-scoring record, this time with 24 tries in 14 matches, but Glebe were once again just off the pace in third spot.

In 1920 Frank Burge was the leading point scorer in the competition as he took on goal kicking duties as well as setting the still standing record for most tries in a game with 8. That’s right, 8. But they only managed to finish in 3rd spot – the same position they would finish for the shortened 1921 season. They had proven to be a good team, but not quite the best.

The 1922 season was the longest season yet at 16 matches and Glebe finished on equal points with the North Sydney Bears at the conclusion of the regular season, which under the aforementioned rules meant that they would be pitted against each other in a Grand Final match to determine the Premiership. North Sydney had won the Premiership the previous season and rode their momentum through to a thorough Grand Final victory over the Dirty Reds and Glebe were once again denied their maiden premiership.

In 1926, the finals series was brought back to life with the top four teams going through to the finals. Glebe finished in second place and took on the perennial easy beats University in the knockout semi-final. As fate would have it, University would win their first and only ever semi-final match comfortably against Glebe, who had now written their own narrative as always being the bridesmaid, but never the bride.

In their last 3 seasons in the competition (1927-29) Glebe would spend most of their time battling to avoid the wooden spoon, which they did manage to do. A small feat, yes, but it meant that they finished their existence without ever ending the season in last place.

To recap, they finished 22 regular seasons with the following placements –
1st – 1 time
2nd – 4 times
3rd – 5 times  (That’s already 10 times out of 22 attempts that they were in the top three)
4th – 3 times (Given that 11 of the seasons they played had 8 teams and 11 had 9 teams this gives them a total of 13 finishes in the top half of the table or about 60%)
5th – 4 times (One of these times they were stripped of 2 points which would have seen them finish 3rd)
6th – 2 times (The first of which didn’t happen until their 16th season)
7th – 1 time
8th – 2 times
9th – 0 times

That is a record that I think a lot of teams would take even if you weighted the positioning to adjust for the extra sides that are now in the competition. The Cowboys have been around for almost as long as Glebe existed now (this is their 18th season) and if you could give their supporters a choice between their current record (On the brink of just their 6th top half finish with 1 Grand Final loss and 3 wooden spoons) or give them Glebe’s results from their first 18 seasons (12 top half finishes with 2 Grand Final losses and no wooden spoons) I know which one they’d be choosing, and the Cowboys are considered a fairly successful team in terms of their on-field performance.

Image

So what happened?

Wikipedia mentions rumours of a conspiracy in voting that forced them out of the competition, with an alleged deal being done between Balmain and Souths to rid the competition of Glebe and consolidate their respective territories. However this doesn’t really make sense. Obviously I would expect that Balmain would absorb some of Glebe’s territory, but Sydney University would surely also gain territory as well as Newtown being between the South Sydney and Glebe boundaries meaning that an agreement with Souths would not make sense from the Rabbitohs perspective.

As you can imagine, first-hand accounts from that time are few and far between, so I did what any person would do in my search for Rugby League knowledge.

I asked David Middleton, who (of course) was a phenomenally useful wealth of information on the subject.

It all started back in the 1917 season when Glebe were docked 2 points for fielding a player who was not residentially qualified to be playing for them (Dan Davies). Back then, to play for any club, you had to be living within their boundaries. There were no salary caps and very little in the way of mercenary behaviour from players because signing for a new team would require moving your whole family to the other end of the city, which wasn’t as simple back then as it is now. Dan was a former Newcastle player from their earlier seasons and he moved to Sydney and was quickly brought in by Glebe. He had to live in the Glebe area for 28 days before he was eligible, however Davies was technically living in Annandale which is a bordering suburb of Glebe. But that was not enough. Much like the maligned Adam Banks*** in the Mighty Ducks series, the borders were the borders for a reason and he was playing for the wrong team. They may have even gotten away with it (at least for a while) if they didn’t rush him into the team immediately following his required 28 days of residence to make his debut against – you guessed it – Annandale. Glebe disagreed with the ruling of the NSWRL hierarchy to strip the 2 premiership points off them and it led to a player strike later in the season and completely derailed what was a promising season until then, as they won only 2 of their remaining 6 games after this. The ‘rebel’ players were initially threatened with life bans but were re-instated before the beginning of the 1918 season, except for Dan Davies who did receive a life ban from playing Rugby League in Australia.

It was the beginning of what would be an ongoing war between Glebe and the League – a war which could only ever be won by one party.

There were disputes over the use of Glebe’s home ground at Wentworth Park**** and the departure of their top administrator (CHJ Upton) in 1920 seems to have exacerbated the situation leaving communications between the club and the league at an all-time low.

Glebe felt that a strong bias had grown against their players when it came to judiciary matters and an attempt to stage a testimonial match for the great Frank Burge in 1923 was met by the NSWRL putting on counter attractions to deny the club of a strong revenue stream from the match.

But it wasn’t all one sided. Glebe was awfully mismanaged through the 1920’s. There is a letter from a Glebe supporter that is held in the JC Davis Sporting collection at the NSW State Library that attests to delegates living out of the district (contrary to NSWRL regulations), an absence of quality coaching and a lack of action by officials over matters important to the club.

In the wash up of all of this, Glebe were a targeted team who, once results went south, were no longer worth the trouble that they were causing the NSWRL.

It is believed that from about 1927 “Balmain’s rugby league delegates had been quietly working towards Glebe’s elimination so the Balmain club could acquire Glebe’s territory in their efforts to recapture their old glories” according to author Max Solling. Of course this work would require garnering some support from the other clubs to turf the Dirty Reds. What Balmain offered in return for the rival clubs’ support is not clear, but it is believed that the targeted teams were Newtown, Easts and Souths.

There were 25 votes on the NSWRL Boundaries Revision Committee which were comprised of 2 delegates from each of the 9 teams along with the 7 members of the league executive. It could be counted on that the 7 league executive members would be voting against keeping Glebe in the competition, meaning that along with Balmain, only two clubs needed to be convinced of the advantages of voting against Glebe’s continued involvement. Nobody knows how each club officially voted, but in the end Balmain got their way, with the vote finishing 13-12 against Glebe. So while the Tigers may have instigated the final nail it was a coffin that the Dirty Reds management seem to have built for themselves.

In the end, what could have been the story of a successful team on the field, ended up being the story of a club that couldn’t get its act together off it. It’s probably a timely reminder to clubs like the Sharks (and others) that getting their house in order should be the first priority, because as Glebe has shown us, no matter your record on the premiership table, you’re a long time dead.

 

 

 

 

*Instead I wasted my youth listening to Rage Against The Machine and NoFX albums, learning every line of dialogue from The Simpsons, trying to play guitar, and getting drunk – in some order. Probably that one.

**They got the wooden spoon in 8 of their last 9 seasons. But they were amateur students playing against the big boys. You can’t really blame them for being so abysmal all the time.

***Cake eater

****What I wouldn’t give for a nice 25,000 seat stadium at Wentworth Park today. If Glebe were still around I think this would be a possibility, and would also have to be a huge chance to be Sydney FC’s home ground as well.