Since the NRL Grand Final was introduced in 1998, there has been some thrilling encounters. Here, Dave Kuzio takes a look at some of the best Grand Finals to take place in the NRL era.
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Rugby league in Australia has seen a Grand Final as their main event since 1908, but the National Rugby League was formed in 1998 and for the purpose of this article I will be focusing on finals from 1998 onwards.
Sydney Roosters have won the NRL Grand Final on four separate occasions and are the only team to have ever won the competition two years in succession. Next in line are Melbourne Storm with three – they have actually won five but two of them were officially stripped after they were found guilty of cheating on the salary cap.
Here, I will pick out the top five NRL Grand Finals that have had the biggest impact on the sport:
5. Penrith Panthers 18-6 Sydney Roosters – 2003 Grand Final
This Grand Final featured the top two teams in the competition, and they did not disappoint. The Panthers won the Minor Premiership thanks to a record of 18 wins and six losses from their 24 league matches. The Roosters finished just two points behind the Panthers having lost one game more.
The Roosters were the favourites despite coming second. The only player in the Penrith side that had any experience of playing in Grand Final was Luke Priddis. That experience paid off as he was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal for man of the match.
Penrith led 6-0 at the break with both defences working extremely hard. A run from inside his own half from Priddis split the Chooks open and he sent Luke Rooney racing away to score the first try of the Grand Final.
The Roosters hit back after the break with Shannon Hegarty going over in the corner after Jason Cayless was held up over the line. The score was now level at 6-6.
That was as good as it got for the Roosters as Penrith scored a further two tries to take the title. Priddis capped off a fine performance with a try from dummy half, while Rooney grabbed his second try after more good work from Priddis.
This was the first time the Panthers had been crowned champions since the formation of the NRL.
4. Cronulla Sharks 14-12 Melbourne Storm – 2016 Grand Final
Cronulla Sharks won their first ever Grand Final title with a stunning, yet narrow, win over Melbourne Storm.
The Storm had been crowned Minor Premiers after topping the ladder after the weekly rounds with 19 wins from 24 games. Cronulla, on the other hand, finished in third place just three points behind the Storm.
Melbourne were expected to have too much for the Sharks with the likes of Blake Green, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster. Tohu Harris and Kenny Bromwich. But it was the Sharks who came out on top with Luke Lewis being awarded the Clive Churchill Medal.
Cronulla hit the front with a penalty from James Maloney to make it 2-0. They extended their lead even further when Paul Gallen broke from the scrum to send Ben Barba in to score. Maloney extended their lead to eight and despite the Sharks have plenty of possession they were unable to extend their lead at the break.
Melbourne regrouped at half-time and were the better team after the break. Two tries in 14 minutes from Jesse Bromwich and Will Chambers saw Storm lead for the first time at 12-8.
Cronulla won the game in the final 10 minutes. Andrew Fifita used all his strength to beat five defenders to touch down. Maloney converted to put them 14-12 in front to set up a tense finish. Melbourne wasted a great chance to win it when Chambers opted to kick following a break instead of sending the ball back inside to Cronk.
3. Canterbury Bulldogs 16-13 Sydney Roosters- 2004 Grand Final
We have mentioned that the Roosters have won the most titles with four, it might be important to point out that they have lost four as well. Here is another one of those.
Again, this was a Grand Final that featured the two top teams in Australia. The Roosters were crowned Minor Premiers on points difference as both teams won 19 of their 24 matches.
The Roosters looked on course for their second Grand Final success in three years as they led 13-6 at half-time. Tries from Chris Walker and Anthony Minichello either side of one from Matt Utai and a Brett Finch drop goal put the Chooks in full control.
The Bulldogs came out fighting in the second period and they reduced the deficit to just one point as Utai went over for his second try of the game. It was game on now and the Doggies went in front with a controversial score as Hazem El Masri was adjudged to have scored. He missed the conversion attempt, but they now led 16-13.
They managed to keep in front and win the game despite the Roosters having one more chance. Michael Crocker made a break but he was hit by Andrew Ryan and lost the ball as Roosters captain Brad Fitler’s last ever professional game ended in defeat.
2. Melbourne Storm 20-18 St George Illawarra Dragons – 1999 Grand Final
This game was not only one of the most exciting finals in NRL history, it was also one of the most controversial.
This was only Melbourne’s second season as an NRL franchise, while the merger of St George Dragons and Illawarra Steelers saw them start their first campaign as St George Illawarra Dragons.
The Dragons actually finished sixth overall after the weekly rounds, six points behind Minor Premiers Cronulla Sharks. Play-off wins from the Dragons over the Storm – who got a second chance after they finished third – the Roosters and Cronulla saw them reach the Grand Final.
St George should never have lost this final and to this day I don’t know how they did. They were leading 14-0 at half-time thanks to tries from Craig Fitzgibbon and Nathan Blacklock plus goals from Wayne Bartrim (2) and Fitzgibbon.
One of the turning points of this game happened at the start of the second half. Anthony Mundine, who had been outstanding for St George all season, nonchalantly tried to ground the ball with one and over the line and he dropped it ruling in a no try.
This gave Storm some hope. They went and scored two converted tries through Tony Martin and Ben Roarty to make it 14-12. The Dragons looked to have made the game safe with Paul McGregor scoring a try, but a penalty from Craig Smith made the score 18-14.
With time running out, Melbourne threw everything at St George. After winning a dropout, Brett Kimmorley sent a bomb to the corner and Dragons winger Jamie Ainscough had a decision to make. He could allow Smith to catch the ball and score or tackle him without the ball and hope he got away with it.
He went for the latter and didn’t get away with it. The video referee ruled a penalty try in favour of Smith and Melbourne. This meant the scores were 18-18, but because it was a penalty try Melbourne had the chance to win it with the conversion being taken under the posts instead of in the corner where the try would have been scored.
Matt Geyer kicked the goal and Melbourne were champions. If Ainscough had allowed Smith to just score in the corner, the conversion attempt may have been missed and they would have had a second bite at it in extra-time.
1. North Queensland Cowboys 17-16 Brisbane Broncos – 2015 Grand Final
This is the first and only Grand Final to go to extra-time as North Queensland Cowboys kept their nerve to win the title for the first time in their history.
Sydney Roosters were crowned Minor Premiers after finishing top, but they failed to reach the Grand Final as they were knocked out in the Preliminary Finals by the Broncos who ran out 31-12 winners.
The Cowboys reached the Grand Final with a similar convincing win over Melbourne Storm as they ran out 32-12 winners at AAMI Park.
This Grand Final was a cracker, it had everything. A high-scoring first-half, a low-scoring second-half and golden point extra-time. What more could you ask for?
The Broncos led 14-12 at the break thanks to tries from Corey Oates and Jack Reed with Corey Parker kicking a conversion and a penalty and Jordan Kahu also kicking a penalty. The Cowboys responded with Justin O’Neill and James Tamou crossing for tries with Jonathan Thurston converting them both.
Brisbane extended their lead to 16-12 at the start of the second half with Kahu kicking another penalty. The score stayed like this until the dying seconds with both teams defending like demons.
An amazing bit of individual skill from Michael Morgan saw him make a break and flicked the ball outside for Kyle Feldt to score in the corner to level the scores. Thurston was unable to convert, and this Grand Final was heading to golden point extra-time.
The Cowboys kicked off extra-time and Brisbane half-back Ben Hunt dropped the ball under his own posts with no pressure applied on him. This allowed the Cowboys to form a scrum, from this Thurston kept his nerve and finally got a drop goal attempt off on the fifth tackle to break Brisbane’s hearts and win the Grand Final.