Almanac Rugby League – Grand Finals in Group 9: a reporter’s view from inside the fence

During the footy season, Thursday on The Almanac is as close as we get to rugby league day. Last week we began a series of stories which were the product of an attempt to produce a collection of rugby league yarns along the lines of the very successful Malarkey Publications, Australian football-focussed book, Footy Town.

 

Today’s offering comes from Liam Hauser, an Almanac contributor with several publications on rugby league and cricket to his name. Liam worked for several years as a sports reporter for an independent newspaper publisher in the Riverina area, Group 9 territory in rugby league. Here he recounts his experiences there. 

 

Whilst State of Origin remains the number one sporting priority for this ardent Queenslander and the Broncos retain my first allegiance in club football, an unforeseen dimension was added to my repertoire via the Group 9 competition in regional NSW.

 

As a resident of Redcliffe in south-east Queensland for more than 15 years, I followed the Dolphins in the Queensland Cup. But my focus on this competition faded into the background when I was appointed as the sports reporter with the Tumut and Adelong Times, and Gundagai Independent newspapers in June 2008. Over the next seven years I regularly reported on matches featuring the Tumut Blues and Gundagai Tigers, witnessing first-hand the passion and fervour that engulfed these clubs. In particular, Group 9 Grand Final day was always eagerly anticipated.

 

The quantity of my Grand Final reporting in any given year depended on the number of Blues and Tigers teams that made it to the big day. Group 9 features five grades, Firsts, Reserves, Under 18s, Under 16s and, since 2008, women’s League Tag. In my time in the region, I had the good fortune of being able to report at least one ‘local’ team in the Grand Final every year between 2008 and 2014. It was a real mixture of highs and lows!

 

I took up my position with the newspaper in mid-season 2008. The Tigers were the Group 9 reigning wooden-spooners. By contrast, the Blues were the defending premiers on a hot winning streak. In the decider at Fisher Park in Cootamundra, the Blues were slated to meet the Craig Field-led Wagga Brothers for the second successive year.

 

In the lead-up to the match I interviewed many of the Tumut players to write a series of profiles and human interest articles for a Grand Final feature in the Tumut and Adelong Times. I had already established a good rapport with many of the players and didn’t hesitate to tell them that they hadn’t lost a game since I took up my role at the paper. Perhaps I was their good-luck charm.

 

With no NRL game scheduled for the same day, the ABC Grandstand commentary team of Warren Boland, Warren Ryan and David Morrow called the Group 9 Grand Final live on national radio. My father listened to it on the back deck of his home in Scarborough, Queensland. What a game it turned out to be! No more than a converted try separated the teams throughout the 80 minutes. The Blues won 20-14 after a scoreless last 22 minutes which featured some desperate last-gasp defence to hold Brothers out on more than one occasion.

 

After the final siren and amid jubilant scenes, I joined fans and players on the field to speak to players and congratulate them. Just 24 hours earlier, I had been dejected when the Broncos exited the NRL play-offs with a last-minute loss to Melbourne. But, on this day, nothing would tarnish my first experience at a Group 9 Grand Final. It was great to be a part of Tumut Blues history with their first-time back-to-back premierships and to be able to report a Grand Final triumph only a few months after arriving in the area. What a thrill! The Tumut and Adelong Times back page headline read “Blues complete historic double” while my match report a couple of pages earlier was entitled “GF twists and turns”.

 

The Blues couldn’t make it three straight titles as Gundagai and the Wagga Kangaroos qualified for the 2009 Grand Final. The Tigers had been starved of premiership glory since 1983, being runners-up no less than six times since then. Although squarely beaten more often than not, their 2004 final loss was the one that really stuck in the throats of the Tigers community. On that occasion, Gundagai players and fans were left ropable with the decisions of referee Bernie Nix and, with the same referee in charge again, they were wary of Nix and hoped that he wouldn’t dud them again.

 

During the season, I developed a strong affiliation with numerous Gundagai players and followers. I prepared a big Grand Final preview for the Gundagai Independent; equivalent to the one I did for the Tumut and Adelong Times a year earlier. I also had to complete previews about Gundagai’s Under 18s who were slated to meet Cootamundra in their Grand Final. Among others, I interviewed Cliff Lyons who, as a 21-year-old, was the Tigers’ five-eighth in their 1983 triumph. As it turned out, I met Lyons on Grand Final day along with Les Boyd whose imposing physical presence ensured that he was quite easy to recognise even for those who hadn’t seen him since the 1980s.

 

Wagga’s Equex Centre hosted the 2009 decider on a clear day marred by a howling, biting wind which kept temperatures in single figures all day. My editor chose to report the Under 18s decider which Cootamundra won 18-8. There was plenty of anticipation for the big game. Gundagai had recruited strongly since 2008 and was led by the mercurial and injury-prone but vastly experienced Jason Ferris while Daniel Wagon, a former State of Origin player, was a mid-season signing. Ferris had had a turbulent year from a personal perspective and had hinted at leaving the club several times but, ultimately, he stayed and led his team onto the field for the big day.

 

This day turned out to be one to forget from a Gundagai perspective. After levelling at 4-all, the Tigers were error-prone and ill-disciplined and never really in contention as the Kangaroos romped home 42-4. Ferris caused consternation among the Tigers faithful with his long, spinning passes which were not conducive to the conditions. The outcome was a huge letdown for the Tigers and I didn’t relish having to write up such a hefty loss. “Tigers trounced” was the back page headline. In my post-match interview, I asked Ferris what he thought went wrong. His response was to denounce the referee and linesmen. Although there were a few questionable decisions, even Bernie Nix’s most ardent critics told me afterwards that the referee could not be blamed at all this time. As it turned out, Ferris earned the ire of much of the Gundagai fraternity. Subsequent unsubstantiated allegations of match fixing left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. Less than a month later, Ferris parted ways with the Tigers.

 

The lead-up to Grand Final day in 2010 was a hectic as I had four matches to preview! Tumut qualified for the main game as well as the Under 18s decider, while Gundagai qualified for the Under 16s and League Tag Grand Finals. This meant lots of interviews, human interest articles, profiles and match previews for both the Tumut and Adelong Times and Gundagai Independent. The big day was held at the Lavington Sportsground in Albury which also meant a lengthy drive for most of the teams and their supporters. My editor opted to report the League Tag decider this time, allowing me to concentrate on the other three matches.

 

The Under 16s match was a classic as Gundagai edged out Wagga Brothers 12-10. Gundagai held a confident 12-0 half-time lead before having the margin pruned to just two points with 21 minutes left on the clock. I was stoked to be able to report Gundagai’s well-earned triumph. In the Under 18s game, the Blues opened the scoring but it wasn’t to be their day as the Kangaroos won 20-8. I knew that my write-up for this match would be a bit sombre compared to the 16s.

 

I was a spectator for the League Tag match. Gundagai appeared to score an equalising try in the dying seconds. With extra-time not available in League Tag, the winner of a drawn decider would be the team which had scored first in the match, in this case Gundagai. But the referee consulted the linesmen and controversially ruled that the Gundagai player’s tag had been removed before she touched down. It was plain for all to see that the try was legitimate and the decision ultimately decided the premiership. What made the controversy all the more disappointing for the Tigerettes was the fact that linesmen were not involved in League Tag fixtures apart from the Grand Final. I was disappointed for the Tigerettes but somewhat relieved that I didn’t have to do a write-up of the game. A headline of “League Tag ends in controversy” was accompanied by the sub-heading ‘We were robbed’ in the following day’s Gundagai Independent.

 

When it came to the main game, Tumut was gunning for its fourth title in eight years while the Junee Diesels sought to break a 24-year premiership drought. Junee opened the scoring but Tumut gained the upper hand and won 22-8. As was the case in 2008, I mingled with players and supporters on the field at the end of the match, enjoying the victory. I relished reporting another premiership. In his second year as Tumut captain-coach, Clay Campbell held the Group 9 trophy aloft after he had been a part of Tumut’s 2003 and 2008 titles. Campbell announced that he would retire and so the headline of my Grand Final report in the ensuing edition of the paper read “Fitting farewell for Campbell.” A back page article focused on the premiership under the headline, “Simply the best”.

 

It was back to the Equex Centre, now known as McDonald’s Park, for Grand Final day in 2011. The South City Bulls, formed after an amalgamation in 2005, qualified for their first Grand Final appearance while their opponent would be Gundagai. Tumut qualified for the Under 18s clash. It seemed like there was some sort of a pattern emerging for me: report a Tumut Blues Grand Final one year and then a Gundagai Tigers involvement the next, at First Grade level anyway, with their lower grades also featuring from time to time. My boss opted to report the Under 18s decider which yielded a convincing 36-12 loss for the Blues against Wagga Brothers.

 

The result of the main game in 2011 would be significant in one way or another. Either South City would win its inaugural title or Gundagai would break their 28-year drought. And the referee? None other than Gundagai’s nemesis, Bernie Nix! At half-time it was 12-all before Gundagai produced a converted try to lead 18-16 with nine-and-a-half minutes left, prompting Tigers fans to hope that their premiership drought was finally about to end. But, at the same time, they knew how winnable situations had slipped from their grasp in the past. “Don’t let it slip again. For the love of God, please don’t let it slip again,” many Tigers fans must have been silently, or not so silently, saying to themselves or anyone nearby.

 

Despite my strongest allegiances being with Queensland and the Broncos, I was absorbed in the 2011 Group 9 Grand Final like something I’d never experienced before. Being a supporter of one’s State or local team was one thing, but being a reporter and having an involvement (and allegiance) with a club elsewhere was something entirely different. Even as a visitor to the region – although, admittedly, I had been in the region for a few years by this stage – I was tense and nervous as I really wanted the Tigers to win.

 

Despite having seen Queensland Cup finals, NRL Grand Finals and countless State of Origin matches go down to the wire, nothing could prepare me for the pressure and tension that encapsulated the last 10 minutes of this game. During this time I felt that nothing else was happening in the world. Gundagai defended tenaciously throughout the second half and tried desperately to hang on as both teams became fatigued. With less than three minutes to go, Gundagai had possession near the halfway line when a Tigers forward had the ball knocked out of his hands. The linesman signaled that the ball had been dislodged but a scrum feed was given to the Bulls. Shouldn’t it have been Gundagai’s ball? Bloody Bernie Nix! Oh, the tension! Would the Tigers hold on, or would the Bulls steal the glory?

 

Then, at the play-the-ball, a Bulls player dropped the ball when there was a considerable distance between him and his tackler. South City was awarded a penalty when a scrum to Gundagai seemed more warranted. Another penalty went to South City, this time for lingering in the ruck. The clock showed less than two minutes remaining. South City pounded away at Gundagai’s defensive line. I was crouched not far from the sideline, desperately hoping that the Tigers would hold on.

 

Then the key moment unfolded. The Bulls shifted the ball left to Peter Little. He was sandwiched in a tackle but, as he fell, he released a brilliant no-look pass to winger Kane Marriott who had a little space and promptly dived over in the corner. I looked at the clock. Just fifty-three seconds remaining. With the try awarded, I dejectedly wrote down the description of that last play. Utter devastation for the Tigers yet again with South City snatching a 20-18 win. I didn’t want to have to write this up. I wasn’t as devastated as the Tigers fraternity but I was downhearted nonetheless. Gundagai’s James Smart had little to say in the post-match interview other than that the last couple of penalties were “rubbish” and that “nobody deserves that”. Just don’t mention Bernie Nix.

 

The back page headline in the following morning’s Gundagai Independent read “Tigers denied at death”. The first five words of my article were “There was plenty of heartache…” A few paragraphs later I reported that it was “a bitter pill to swallow for the Tigers”. Knowing the Tigers faithful, I also felt that there was little choice but to report: “Referee Bernie Nix was an easy scapegoat from Gundagai’s perspective, as he was seven years earlier when the Tigers lost a Grand Final to Temora in extra time”. I also wrote a separate article with the headline “Tigers rue crucial refereeing decisions”. Reference was made to the 2004 and 2011 Grand Finals, as well as the 2010 Leaguetag decider. The Tigers president conceded that while human error was part of the game, it appeared that Gundagai had repeatedly been let down by a crucial decision or two at a vital stage of the Grand Final. He added that he was “sick of copping the raw end of the stick from referees”.

 

I didn’t have to report a First Grade decider in 2012 after the Blues won just two matches all year while the Tigers finished one game short of a Grand Final berth. I had just one match to report, Reserve Grade, so the week leading up to the Grand Final was not quite so hectic. The Tigers were clearly the underdogs while the Albury Thunder were aiming for a third straight title. Albury won a tight encounter and that man, Bernie Nix, was the referee but this time his performance could not be faulted. In fact, a one-eyed Albury fan I spoke to claimed that Gundagai had 14 players on the field, with Nix being the 14th! The Tigers were far from downhearted as their Reserve Grade achievement was commendable. That meant that my write-up wouldn’t be so difficult. In fact, one Gundagai identity who vociferously abused Nix the previous year called out to him, “I love you this time!”

 

The Tigers reached the 2013 Grand Final against an Albury side seeking back-to-back titles. Gundagai was clearly the underdog but in Reserve Grade the Tigers were minor premiers. The week leading up to the Grand Final was therefore fairly demanding with previews, profiles and so on for two Gundagai teams. When it came to the big day at McDonald’s Park, Gundagai’s Reserve Graders were erratic but snatched the lead with 10 minutes left. But they fell two points behind in the last five minutes as Brothers earned the title. There was no time to feel the disappointment of the Tigers Reserves coming so near and yet so far as First Grade followed immediately.

 

There was hope for the underdogs as the Tigers led 12-4 and 16-8 at varying stages of the first half before taking a skinny 16-14 lead into half-time. There was understandable disappointment among the Tigers as Albury eventually triumphed 30-20. It wasn’t particularly satisfying to have to report two losses for Gundagai in the following day’s edition. I was also getting sick of reporting that a First Grade title for Gundagai remained elusive since 1983! At least Bernie Nix’s performance couldn’t be singled out for attention this time.

 

Gundagai’s Reserve Graders made it to the 2014 season’s last day so, initially, I had just one local team to report. But things changed when the Temora Independent reporter was unavailable on Grand Final day. This meant that I had to report the Under 16s, Under 18s and Leaguetag finals for the Temora Independent. All of a sudden I had four Grand Finals to report instead of just one! At least I had only one to preview. Whilst I was familiar with matches involving the Temora Dragons during the regular season, the difference now was that I was reporting for a Temora audience.

 

Temora took on Brothers in the first three deciders of the day. The Dragons ran out 22-12 winners in the Under 16s before the Brethren won 23-10 in the Under 18s. As for the League Tag, well, this was interesting. These two teams had history! Temora had contested every League Tag final since the inception of the competition in 2008, including a win over Brothers in 2009. That game was remembered for the fact that, in the post-match presentations, the losing Brothers captain didn’t even mention the Dragonettes, let alone congratulate them. Temora then lost three successive finals to Brothers from 2011 to 2013.

 

The Dragonettes took a 12-0 lead into half-time and looked like they might end the Brethren’s winning streak but, alas, it was not to be. Brothers edged ahead 14-12 as Temora was kept scoreless after half-time. The themes of my Temora articles were summed up in the headlines “Glory for Dragons Under 16s”, “Dragons Under 18s run out of puff” and “Dragonettes let it slip”.

 

Meanwhile, I was grateful to be able to report a Reserve Grade premiership for Gundagai. The Tigers played some good football in patches but went off the boil at other times. They led 12-4 at half-time before falling behind 22-18, then scored two tries in the final 10 minutes to record a 28-22 win against Albury. “Tigers roar to glory” was the back page headline in the following day’s Gundagai Independent.

 

I left the Tumut and Adelong Times and Gundagai Independent in May 2015 but remained in the region and continued to be an avid follower of Group 9. It certainly was different to be a spectator for the 2015 Grand Final without the pressure of reporting and deadlines. It was a day to remember and, as I had my dad Ian visit me around this time, he came along for the ride. I’ll leave it to him to give his account of it all elsewhere in this collection. It was certainly a far cry from the first Group 9 match he saw, that one-sided 2009 disaster for the Tigers!

 

Before I moved on to Gunnedah, I finally got my hands on something I’d wanted to see for a long time, a copy of Gundagai’s controversial 2004 Grand Final loss in extra time. At last I was able to see for myself if Gundagai’s criticism of Bernie Nix was really warranted. Because 2004 was before my time in the Group 9 region, I felt that I could watch the replay from an impartial perspective whereas in 2011 I was much more intimately involved. I observed that yes, the Tigers did cop a 9-2 pasting in the penalty count in the second half. Were there some dodgy decisions? Yes. But was the referee responsible for Gundagai’s unforced mistakes? No. In extra time, the Tigers went to the lead with a penalty goal before the Dragons scored a long range try to steal the premiership. Was that the referee’s fault? Of course not. But let’s not allow the facts to get in the way of a good conspiracy theory!

 

Sitting on the fence or being a parochial supporter, I’ve had an interesting ride when it comes to watching rugby league. My time reporting matches in Group 9 provides a classic snapshot of just how that plays out. It’s why we love the game!

 

Liam Hauser is the author of State of Origin 35 Years (2010, Rockpool Publishing), a series by series, game by game record of rugby league’s most engrossing annual clash between Queensland and New South Wales. (State of Origin 40 Years (2020, Gelding Street Press) is due to be released in the coming months.) He also authored Rugby League’s Greatest Contests (2019, New Holland) which recounts Grand Finals throughout the 100+ years history of the NSWRL/NRL, and The Immortals of Australian Rugby League (2019, Gelding Street Press), which profiles the 13 rugby league players inducted into this elite group of the code’s champions. Contact the relevant publishers for copies. His publications also include at least three titles on cricket.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Group 9 certainly seems to be a stronghold of rugby league in NSW. Great rivalries between the towns, huge local interest and support, and full of characters who keep the show rolling, even through really difficult times. And, like most places, not without a bit of controversy here and there. Let’s hope they survive the current challenges.

  2. Stephen G. Nuske says

    Thank you Liam for your engrossing reporting….blimey. Amazing piece of writing…I was unaware of your literary productions…Cheers.

  3. Ah Group 9 – sport and parochialism at its purest
    as a product of the Riverina as a youngster from the great Railway town of Junee I just want to say …
    that it is home to the greatest nickname in Rugby League there is ….Go Junee Diesels
    great Article Liam
    as a born and bred Cockroach ( even though I have lived in Qld bar 4 years back in Canberra and the last 9 months in The Arctic ) for nigh on 30 years – what intrigues me is that the Qld passion has never quite been matched by NSW except perhaps for brad Fittler both as player and coach and every year a whole school at which I have worked for the last 11 years would turn against me whenever I wore my blues jumper to school – when have won and that has been very seldom in the overall scheme of things how sweet it was !!

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