The game of a lifetime. Drama, human frailty and triumph in the 1989 NSW Rugby League Grand Final

Finals week is here and Peter Newlinds looks back on one of the greatest finals ever, of any code.

Mal Meninga playing for the Canberra Raiders photo courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

I felt a little misty eyed as the Roosters and Rabbitohs players walked off the Sydney Football Stadium last Saturday night. I’d got to know the Sydney Cricket Ground at Moore Park well during my years as a groundsman/scoreboard operator in the early 1980s. I recall when beehives stood in the corner of the SCG number 2, which is the site of the now redundant SFS and its yet to be named successor. Two stadiums on, the time clock of life keeps moving.

Countless sports fans have their own personal memories of that modestly scaled, generically named and easy to love arena. In my case, the memories stretch back as far as a Socceroos versus Israel World Cup qualifier in April 1989 (the venue was opened just the previous year) and continue on through Bledisloe Cup matches, Olympic soccer, and numerous Rugby League games, including consecutive grand finals in 1997 and 1998. The classic last second win by Newcastle over Manly in 1997 stands as almost the most dramatic game (any code) that I’ve seen live.

There’s one game that stands atop this pyramid of humanity, drama and achievement and forms an important part of the Rugby League chapter ‘Playground to the Pub’ in my book Around the Grounds. I watched it on a TV screen 700 kilometres away.

It was September 24, 1989, the NSW Rugby League Grand Final between Canberra and Balmain. That’s not that long ago…most of the players involved in the final are still around today and involved with the game. But it’s far enough back in time to evoke a different feeling and spirit, and represent a different style in which the game was played.

The stadium had been heavily used that winter and the playing surface was a little dusty on that fine September Sunday afternoon. Watching the replays it resembles a battlefield.

The match was almost disproportionally loaded with key moments. In the first half there was the front-on tackle of Tigers prop Steve Roach by Dean Lance that took the wind out of the entire stadium, not to mention the player. Other moments included James Grant’s intercept try from an errant Brent Todd pass and Paul Sironen’s freight-train run to the line right on half time (12–2 the Tigers way). The second half was built on that gripping opening act, with Gary Belcher’s try to get the Raiders back in the game, while at the other end of the ground there was the evolving tragidrama for Balmain as Mal Meninga landed an ankle tap on Mick Neil and left the try line begging. Wayne Pearce dropped the ball while an unmarked Tim Brasher ran beside him, and the try line again beckoning. Benny Elias thumped the cross bar with a field goal attempt and Warren Ryan replaced (permanently in those days) Roach and Sironen in an ill-fated bid to defend his lead for the last fifteen minutes. Finally and most dramatically of all there was Laurie Daley’s overhead basketball pass to John ‘Çhicka’ Ferguson and that final light-stepping dance to the try line. ‘I kept my head down, followed through and prayed,’ recalled Mal Meninga as he lined up the equalising conversion kick.

The match extended into extra time but the Tigers were shot and, in hindsight everyone knew it. Gary Jack’s knock on was the cue for the final act of the afternoon – Steve Jackson and his bulldozing try sealed the game for the Raiders, a moment historic in so many ways. History is one thing, memories are another.

Each major play of the 1989 Grand Final is like a chapter, and every player a vivid and in some cases unforgettable character from a thriller novel. (A point of interest, watching from the sidelines that day was Canberra reserve grader, now Melbourne Storm master coach, Craig Bellamy.) If ever there was a football game you could write a book about this would be the one.

All these years later, the 1989 Grand Final never seems to dull in the memory. I can name off the top of my head every player in the starting line up: I don’t think I can do that for any other football game. The TV commentary, like the game itself, was unrelentingly urgent. Suspense, intrigue with scarcely believable twists dealt out in five minute blocks. It was everything you’d want from a sporting contest. It’s why, in the league table of my mind, it is the single most unforgettable football code of any game that I’ve ever seen.

May your grand final weekend be an enjoyable one, and may your team of choice, be it long term or otherwise, be successful. You never know, in 30 years’ time, you might be looking back at this weekend and still clearly recalling the game of a lifetime.

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