When the Grand Final was King

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Office Hot Raiders

I have to preface this by saying that I started writing this article before James Tedesco signed with the Raiders and it is just an awesome coincidence that he is an example that I have used in here but was by no means the instigator for me to write this.

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So what am I talking about?

To explain it properly I have to go back almost 15 years to a time when I was still a teenager and first started working in an office.

Having only worked in bars and doing manual labour prior to this, it was quite a culture shock to start in an office environment and begin to see all of the little nuances that I have since discovered to exist in almost every office (Ricky Gervais has done a pretty good job of illustrating what I mean, so I won’t go into too much detail). The Friday afternoon drinks that start the following week’s office rumors. The sometimes staggering obesity. The institutional misogyny of high powered male bosses* and the general ‘slut shaming’ that it provokes on the office floor. But there was something else that took me a little while longer to understand.

I was about 6 months in when I realised that I had become infatuated with a girl in the office. My only interactions with her were in the kitchen or the elevator and no longer than 10 seconds at a time, but she seemed smart and funny (though I really had very little to go on there) and therefore the only other impression I could be left with was how she looked physically. In short, she was hot. She managed to keep a smile on my face most days that I had to work my shitty job and that is no mean feat. I didn’t really have the courage to do anything about it, and the more I waited the more attractive she got to me.

Then it happened.

I was out with some friends on a weekend at a place that she happened to be at, and at first I didn’t even recognise her. She actually said hello to me before I figured out who it was. This wasn’t because she looked drastically different to how she did in the office. In fact she looked pretty much the same. The problem was that out of the office environment, no longer surrounded by the misery, dullness and aforementioned obesity, she no longer stood out. It was a Saturday night and all of the other girls around were done up and looking their best. Trying to hide anything that they (mistakenly) think a prospective mate might see as a flaw. Sometimes they are just trying to look as good as they can to feel good about themselves for once. It really must suck to be a woman, and I definitely don’t envy them at all. The point is, in this environment, my office crush blended into a sea of pretty good looking girls. It was the first time that I discovered the phrase “Office Hot”**

A similar phenomenon happens in the NRL (and other sports too, I’m sure), but as far as I know it doesn’t have a name. So Office Hot it is.

From about 1990 to the time they were dismissed from the competition, South Sydney were The Office. They never finished above 9th. Supporting them was a nightmare. To make it worse, the Bunnies faithful kept getting glimmers of hope, and having them taken away. You see, on an outrageously average South Sydney team, a Craig Field could look like the next Craig Coleman. He was even named Craig! He was a young up and coming halfback, that with the right direction could go all the way. So teams would begin to circle, and eventually Manly were able to nab Field with the promise of finals football and big money. Of course once out of the ghetto and into the penthouse, all of his flaws began to show and he was shown to not be the talented half that he appeared to be at Redfern. Darrell Trindall was a standout for Souths and his fans could never understand why he wasn’t recognised – until they actually watched games not involving the Rabbitohs of course. In the late 90’s Craig Wing was far and away the best player on the Bunnies roster and while he continued to have a good career, he was never the best player on a team again after he moved on.

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There have been players like this at all sorts of clubs. Players that were given an opportunity at the next level – City/Country, State of Origin, whatever their next level was – and have failed, but for mine, since the turn of the century, the NRL’s biggest Office Hot breeding ground has been the Raiders.

For me their ‘patient zero’ is the halves pairing of Mark McLinden and Andrew McFadden. They came along not long after the demise of the Daley and Stuart partnership that brought a lot of success to Canberra, NSW and even the Kangaroos. They were young players who would show flashes of brilliance, and on a struggling Raiders team, were often praised as having the potential to do the same as the men they replaced. Of course the furthest that either of them got was a single Country Origin jersey for McLinden in 2001.

Next cab off the rank was Brett Finch. Had all of the same traits as the Maccas before him and all of the “potential” talk was there for him – so much so that the defending premiers Roosters brought him in to try and defend their title. It’s a feat he never achieved. Still, the powerbrokers in NSW saw fit to give him a couple of attempts at igniting an origin career, and in spite of kicking the winning field goal in one appearance, he never reached the heights that the early praise anticipated.

It is well known that the Raiders have struggled for the best part of 15 years to attract big name and quality players to the nation’s capital, or even to keep the good young players that come through. This is surely one of the contributing factors to the reputation I am giving them here. The players in Canberra actually DO get picked up by other teams, or occasionally given a representative jersey when the cries of the Canberra faithful and media become too loud, and actually have the opportunity to be exposed. Players like Craig Coleman may have ended up being exposed, but due to the era he played in, he never got a representative jersey, and he was a club legend at Souths who were able to hold on to him.

But when you start to look at a list of Canberra players over this period, you can see what I mean

Ryan O’Hara – Boom front rower that was expected to make an impact on the representative scene. Played one Origin match and was way out of his depth. His entire career never recovered from it.

Joel Monaghan – Unstoppable try scoring machine at the Raiders, who in spite of some David Bradbury representative honours, didn’t really make an impact on the game until he went to the dogs.***

Phil Graham – Speedy winger who was an integral part of the limited success the Raiders had and his career peak was when he got a Country Origin jersey in 2007, which says enough on its own, but he ended up at the Roosters and did nothing.

Terry Campese – Another player that was supposedly “full of potential” (which at Canberra I have come to realise just means ‘has some skill, prone to errors, wildly inconsistent’) and somehow managed to fail upwards. Was selected for the Kangaroos and had no impact, which gained him a NSW Country selection, where he again had no impact. This of course led to a NSW selection where he… you guessed it, had no impact.

Michael Weyman – Looked to be the great white hope when he emerged at Canberra and while he managed to pick up a premiership in his move to the Dragons, he never did anything to live up to the expectations that were placed upon him from his time in Canberra

Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – His work in a lime green jumper got him a call up to both NSW and Australia back in 2009-2010 and such was his non-existence and subsequent fall from grace, that I was genuinely surprised to see that he is still playing first grade

Josh Dugan – Undoubtedly talented, and almost certainly never going to be the star he was made out to be

Blake Ferguson – See above

Need I go on?^

In all honesty, it’s baffling how a player like Anthony Milford still manages to draw all the plaudits that he does. Has nobody been paying attention? I mean, it isn’t impossible for him to go on and become a star, but the truth is, the odds are firmly against him.

The Raiders have led the way in this department for a long time, but they are not the only ones. The Tigers have their own recent history with a string of players who were talked up for almost a decade since their Premiership in 2005 and mostly peaked in the City v Country arena.

From the Liam Fulton, Bryce Gibbs and Chris Heighington era to the unfulfilled potential of Chris Lawrence and Keith Galloway, they are in danger of looking to take the title all together if people don’t calm down on the largely unwarranted hype on players like Brooks, Sironen and particularly Tedesco, who has all the hallmarks of a Raiders player if ever I saw one^^

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Souths still have their own examples in the likes of John Sutton who while setting the record for the most games played for the Cardinal and Myrtle, never took the next representative step that he should have.

There are players all over the league that fit this description and the Eels have an amazing history with halfbacks that deserves a mention, but the question is, even with the mounting challenge of the Tigers, is it even possible for the Raiders to escape this cycle?

The system in place in Canberra seems to feed into this. They buy or breed young players with potential, give them plenty of first grade experience at a young age (where they get to show the Canberra definition of ‘potential’ that I previously mentioned) in the hopes of teaching them to become quality players by the age of 23 and getting almost a decade of play out of them. They supplement these players by bringing in some experienced heads on a higher salary (which they can afford due to having so many young players on smaller pay) to show the kids the way.

It is a solid model, so much so that the Panthers have taken it on board with their recently implemented strategy. But the most important part of the strategy is the part that the Raiders can’t seem to complete. They can’t keep the players that are good enough to produce for them once they get a bit of exposure unless they pay way more than the player is actually worth. This goes for the older players they bring in too. The higher pay packet brings unrealistic expectations for the young players and tends to lull the older players into complacency. It is a problem that Penrith shouldn’t have, but the Raiders probably can’t escape without winning a title or two and attracting players that way. But with this system in place, it doesn’t seem a realistic proposition.

But what other options do they have? This seems like it might be the only way for them to find limited success (which is exactly what they have had for the last 15 years) therefore leaving them stuck in a perpetual loop. At a club like Canberra, this may be all you can realistically hope for!

So spare a thought for the Raiders paying a frankly stupid amount of money for James Tedesco^^^ – He may be their Pam Beasley/Dawn Tinsley. The hottest girl in the office might be all that they want.

 

 

 

*Parts of this article are going to seem like misogyny, but I have confirmed with female friends that they feel the same way. You’ll understand when I get there.

**Urban Dictionary definition – Someone who is defined as hot, but only because of the lack of options enforced by your place of work. Being stuck in work tends to add 2 or 3 points in the “out of ten” rating system. ‘Cheryl is looking office hot today. If she was in the street I probably wouldn’t look twice tho’ – See, totally misogynist. That doesn’t change that it is a real thing though.

*** Eh? Get it?

^I have left plenty out because I could probably name about 20 and don’t have the time, but honourable mention to Todd Carney, who I couldn’t in good faith put on this list because he did have one streak that won him plenty of the games highest accolades, but has really never looked close to that player before or since

^^Again, I just want to re-iterate, that I wrote this BEFORE he signed with them. Sometimes things just work out too well.

^^^Obviously, this part was written AFTER the signing